Miami-Dade County leaders have spent decades grappling over incorporation, fighting to maintain control of county land and resources against constituents who want a city government closer to home.
The saga resembles a soap opera: Longtime allies spewing insults at each other over new city proposals. Dueling lawsuits. Multimillion dollar payouts to the county from cities claiming extortion.
The latest episode will be written on Nov. 6, when voters decide whether to make it easier for unincorporated neighborhoods to break away from the county. A proposed charter amendment would give residents more time to gather fewer signatures to petition for a new city — and would force county commissioners to approve or deny petitions, instead of delaying them indefinitely, as they have done in the past.
Those changes may seem dry and bureaucratic, but they get to the heart of big questions about the future of the county. Should Miami-Dade follow Broward and turn all of its neighborhoods into cities, leaving the county to focus on regional issues? And if only portions of Miami-Dade incorporate, what happens to the county’s remaining communities?
County Hall leaders have generally resisted allowing relatively wealthy enclaves — and their tax dollars — to “cherry pick” their borders and leave the county, forcing the rest of unincorporated Miami-Dade to make do with fewer resources. Indeed, the difference in quality of life between those living in incorporated and unincorporated neighborhoods is often staggering.
It’s a stifling hot day along Northwest 27th Avenue in the unincorporated West Little River neighborhood, and a once-thriving Chevy dealership rests almost still, only the tall uncut grass outside lightly blowing in the breeze. Rusted iron gates guard nothing but rotting wood and broken concrete. There are no people around.
Three blocks north, Lewis Washington sits on a chair in his front lawn next to his cousin. They survey the dirt and rock-laden road running along the side of the home Lewis has lived in since 1975.
The road goes on for six blocks. There is no pavement — only holes, water, mud and mats residents have placed over the scarred surface to keep their cars from sinking into the mushy wallow.
“We’ve been trying to get the road fixed for 20 years now. It never happens,” Washington tells his county commissioner, Jean Monestime, who was driving around his district.
Just 12 blocks east, residents of the incorporated Village of El Portal rest under enormous shady oaks, their recently paved streets adorned with new traffic circles. Some fish in the late afternoon from their backyards along the Little River. It’s not a rich community by any means, but homeowners fork over a property tax four times higher than their unincorporated neighbors without much hesitation.
The reason, Village Manager Jason Walker says: They have a bigger say in where their money goes.
“All decisions here are local,” said Walker, El Portal’s top administrator for six years. “You get more things done when you can walk two blocks to your village manager. Whether it’s tree trimming or street repair — we get yelled at a lot.”
Walker has nine full-time employees. El Portal has 890 homes. The village’s operating budget is a mere $493,330. Village Hall is a converted wooden home along a railroad track with a piano just inside the main door.