Miami-Dade should rethink incorporation issue


The narrative begins with the last chapter; and it was a strange and inconclusive last chapter, if ever there was one.

A handful of small cities came, hat in hand, to the Land Use and Development Committee of the Miami-Dade County Commission. They all wanted to annex vast, mostly commercial and nowadays contiguous properties that currently belong to what insiders call “UMSA” and everyone else calls the unincorporated areas of the county.

Because annexation typically involves commercial areas in which less than 250 voting residents live, there is no requirement that the property owners vote up or down as to whether they wish to be annexed to an existing city.

The process of annexation is one half of the story; the other half is what is called “incorporation.” This process happens by an entirely different procedural route. Incorporation happens when the residents of UMSA decide that they want to become a new city, petition their government and convince the county to approve a plan of incorporation and then convince their fellow citizens to approve it in a referendum.

It has happened recently in mostly affluent neighborhoods, such as Key Biscayne, Doral, Aventura and Pinecrest. County administrators refer to those as “donor communities,” based on someone’s calculation that they pay more in taxes to the county than what they receive in government services.

After incorporation, those communities, with their high tax base, can afford to keep city taxes down and still provide a more intimate, more user-friendly form of municipal governance for themselves. They are a classic case of the principle of “subsidiarity,” by which government is established at the level closest to the people affected by their local government.

Miami Gardens, which is also the result of a recent incorporation, was not an affluent donor community, but it contained enough high-end commercial and residential properties to enjoy the same fruits of self-government as the more affluent communities.

Beset by a helter-skelter proliferation of new cities, the county imposed a moratorium on new cities and on new annexation by existing cities. The moratorium lasted for about a decade, until activists in UMSA organized and lobbied candidates and incumbents to give them the same rights bestowed on what has turned into a bewildering array of 35 cities, with an overarching regional government that has a dual role: to manage the countywide authorities (airport, seaport, water and sewer, mass transportation and public health) plus render municipal services (police, fire, public works, parks and planning) to UMSA.

It is an understatement to say that we have not done a good job of processing petitions for either annexation or incorporation.

The first mistake was to treat the two initiatives as if they were identical, when one involves mostly commercial districts that are generally happy to pay the lower taxes levied by UMSA and residential areas — many of them affluent — that are itching to control their own zoning, deploy their own police forces, and even spend a little more to spruce up their streets and parks.

It is also a mistake to think that the solution is to “get the county out of the municipal governance business.” Despite the county’s historical shortcomings, there are areas of the county (including one called Kendale, which lies in my commission district) where residents are quite satisfied to have municipal services rendered by the county.

The last thing they want is to incorporate; and I expect their numbers will grow in this era of municipal corruption and turbulence.

And so, in short, we have gone from total inaction to total confusion, sprinkled with high-powered municipal bureaucrats and higher-powered private lobbyists, pushing and pulling on us from opposite directions.

It is time to reassess and regroup — beginning with replacing those members of the countywide incorporation and annexation committee who were suspended from their government posts. One of my commission colleagues, Barbara Jordan, has suggested that we engage the academic community in the analysis.

Sounds like a good start.

Xavier Suarez represents District 7 on the Miami-Dade County Commission.

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