Six months ago, Miami-Dade County commissioners thought it would be a good idea to appoint a task force to study the creation of new cities and the expansion of existing ones.
Then two task-force members — one of them the chairman — got arrested, charged and suspended in separate federal corruption cases unrelated to the task force.
Suddenly, the task force’s work was called into question.
“The infamous incorporation and annexation task force,” Commissioner Barbara Jordan called it from the dais last month, lamenting the fate of the very group whose creation she had sponsored.
It wasn’t just the ignominious exits of Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, the task force’s chairman, and Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño, one of its members, after they were arrested in August, that gave the group a bad name.
In retrospect, Jordan and Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said that the board appointed the wrong people to the task force, choosing several city mayors, attorneys and managers whose interests may have been in conflict with those of the county as a whole. One commissioner, Juan C. Zapata, appointed himself.
“I lost my faith when I saw members in that task force that were there just for their own personal gain,” Sosa said, without getting into specifics. “I won’t pay much attention to [their report].”
Still, the task force plowed along, drafting recommendations to commissioners last month on how to tackle key questions about the future organization of the county. Chief among them: Should all of Miami-Dade be split into cities, as is Broward County, leaving county government to focus on regional issues such as public transit, the airport and the seaport?
Maybe, the task force said. Communities shouldn’t be required to become cities, but they should be encouraged to take that step.
Just more than half — 56 percent — of Miami-Dade residents live in 34 cities. The rest live in unincorporated neighborhoods where the county provides services such as garbage pickup, police patrols and road work.
Cityhood has long divided residents of those communities. Proponents say city government closer to home ensures better services. Opponents happy with the county-run services counter that new cities often raise the property-tax rate and create an unnecessary layer of government.
The debate reignited last year when Miami-Dade lifted its five-year ban on new cities. Jordan proposed the task force come up with a plan for how the county should proceed.
For Miami-Dade, the trickiest part about new cities and annexations has been losing wealthy residential and commercial neighborhoods — and the property taxes they bring — to municipalities, leaving the county to make do with a less affluent tax base.
“Communities have been able to pick and choose which areas of unincorporated Dade they would like to have, leaving the remainder — that’s the most difficult and challenging communities — to Miami-Dade County,” Jordan said.
The task force said Miami-Dade should encourage unincorporated neighborhoods to consider cityhood or annexation so the county can get out of the business of providing municipal services.
If residents choose to remain in unincorporated areas, the task force recommended the county conduct a long-term analysis of how those communities can survive and thrive. The more new cities, the more expensive it will become for the county to maintain services for the unincorporated neighborhoods.
Once the unincorporated area has shrunk to a fifth of its current size, the task force said the county should poll those residents to find out if they want to remain outside cities.
In general, the task force’s 21 recommendations would make it easier for residents to create new cities or grow existing ones. Members said the county should remove several barriers, including requiring certain payments to Miami-Dade from new cities, or granting a single commissioner the power to green-light or kill proposals.
And when new cities and annexations arise, they should have boundaries that make sense, to avoid leaving unincorporated enclaves, the task force said.
Earlier this year, commissioners created four municipal advisory committees — in addition to five already active — to study the price tag of incorporation in the county’s southern and western suburbs.
Disappointed with the task force, Jordan said last month that she plans to reach out to local universities to ask urban planners to weigh in on how the county should address future annexations and incorporations.
Zapata, who said he appointed himself to the 13-member task force because his commission district is made up entirely of unincorporated neighborhoods, called other commissioners’ criticisms of the task force “very unfair.”
His colleagues apparently expected the task force to draw boundaries for new or expanded cities, he contended, saying they seemed disappointed that task force members steered away from the controversial job of divvying up the county.
“That’s I don’t think up to this task force to address — who are the winners and losers in this process,” Zapata said.
Before signing off on their report, task force members took pains to highlight the time and thought they had dedicated to their recommendations.
They even considered removing Maroño’s and Pizzi’s names from the report, though the two suspended mayors participated during most of the deliberations and had been arrested only a month before the group’s work was done. Pizzi resigned from the task force, but Maroño didn’t. Both their names ultimately remained.
Dismayed task force members said they hoped their work, over months of public hearings and regular meetings, would get at least some commission attention.
“We’ve worked very, very hard,” member Rosa M. de la Camara said. “I don’t want this effort to fall by the wayside.”