Now that hes a county commissioner, Juan C. Zapata readily makes this uncomfortable admission: During his eight years in the Florida House of Representatives, he did more for the cities in his South Miami-Dade district than for its stand-alone neighborhoods.
Cities had elected politicians and paid lobbyists jostling for limited state dollars. Neighborhoods didnt. In the end, the cities got more money for more projects, Zapata said. The neighborhoods were left behind.
I was able to do nothing for my unincorporated areas, Zapata has lamented from the commission dais.
That perceived inequity is one of the crucial reasons Zapata, who now represents a swath of unincorporated western suburbs, and other commissioners have given for endorsing countywide incorporation, which would require every inch of Miami-Dade to belong to a city just like in Broward County.
The long-discussed concept has been recently taken up by a new task force charged with making recommendations on how Miami-Dade should proceed.
That neighborhoods will try to incorporate is a given. A year ago, commissioners lifted a five-year ban on new cities, opening the door for five communities that had already declared their cityhood intentions to revive their efforts. But should the county take an all-or-nothing approach and require that every neighborhood join an existing city or form a new one? And if not, how could Miami-Dade ensure that unincorporated communities receive an adequate level of public services?
The task force, which began meeting this month, will listen to public comments when it meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the South Dade Regional Library in Cutler Bay. It held a similar meeting in North Dade last week, with two more scheduled in May in West Dade and West Kendall. In November, voters signed off on county charter changes to make incorporation easier.
The group, chaired by Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, includes incorporation proponents and opponents, who for years have observed that wealthy residential and commercial enclaves have joined cities, taking with them the property-tax revenue that funds services such as police patrols, garbage pickup and road repair. They also note that cities tend to raise property-tax rates to fund enhanced services.
I want to settle this once and for all, task force member Deborah Lamb, an opponent who is happy living in the unincorporated neighborhood of The Falls, said at the groups first meeting. I am tired of fighting the same thing over and over again.
Incorporation has long divided Miami-Dade residents. About 56 percent of them live in the countys 34 cities. The other 44 percent live in what bureaucrats call the unincorporated municipal service area, or UMSA.
Most incorporation matters tend to quickly become politically charged. When Zapata pushed to examine the incorporation of West Kendall, his colleagues chided him for not consulting them before proposing a large study area that extended beyond his districts borders. When Commissioner Javier Souto found out Sweetwater was trying to annex roads in his district, he accused the city mayor of a land grab.
And when Commissioner Barbara Jordan ventured into a corner of her North-Central Miami-Dade district to follow up on a years-old request to identify the area as North Pointe, Commissioner Esteban Steve Bovo filed legislation on behalf of neighboring Palm Springs North asking to be exempt from the North Pointe name or from the incorporation of any new city.
Commissioners have said they dont want to require unincorporated areas to become cities a move that would dramatically affect county government, limiting its functions to regional matters such as the airport, seaport and public transit.
But they have agreed that incorporation should happen in a more orderly fashion. In a memo to the task force, Mayor Carlos Gimenez warned that, without a comprehensive plan, at some point it will no longer be feasible to serve UMSA if large chunks of communities keep breaking away from the county.
To improve the process of incorporating new cities and annexing neighborhoods to existing ones, Gimenez recommended several changes, including streamlining approvals, requiring more common-sense annexation borders and allowing commercial property owners to participate in annexation decisions involving their areas.
If the task force were to recommend incorporating the entire county, he added, that decision should go to a public referendum. Countywide incorporation proposals did not gain traction among commissioners in 1997 and failed in a tight board vote in 2002.
For its part, the task force has asked staff for a slew of financial information, particularly on communities in some stage of the incorporation process: the Sky Lake and Highland Lakes neighborhoods west of Aventura, the Fontainebleau neighborhood near Sweetwater, Biscayne Gardens, Fisher Island and a portion of North Central Miami-Dade east of Hialeah.
Of key importance is whether a potential new city would have a broad enough tax base to support city government, or whether it would take away too much property-tax revenue from the county.
Or, as task force member Lenny Feldman, who heads an incorporation committee for the Sky Lake-Highland Lakes Area Homeowners Association, said at the groups first meeting:
I just want to make sure that were not moving along the path that would put a severe financial burden on the county.