Weeks into his job in Opa-locka, Tom Marko and others turned up a grim discovery: City officials had turned to special funds restricted for road repairs and police cars to cover millions in budget losses.
After poring over the city’s financial records, the former Miami-Dade budget analyst found Opa-locka was losing so much money every year it unlawfully tapped into surtax and police forfeiture funds to pay its bills.
“The city was broke,” said Marko, an assistant city manager. “They had been failing miserably.”
Days after disclosing his findings to his supervisors, the longtime administrator was forced to resign on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the man who hired him, Steve Shiver, was fired as city manager.
Both men, who were hired in the past three months, were ousted amid a scandal that has been growing almost daily with revelations of dwindling revenues and shoddy practices that have driven the city into a crisis that could lead to a fiscal takeover by the state.
Also unfolding in the city: a federal corruption investigation into alleged kickback schemes involving some public officials. Federal agents have declined to comment.
The city was broke. They had been failing miserably.
Tom Marko, ousted assistant city manager
Marko, who spent 26 years in county government, fired off a scathing memo to acting city manager David Chiverton on Wednesday, accusing the city of neglecting massive debts totaling about $8 million — more than half of Opa-locka’s entire budget.
His biggest concern: $4 million owed to Miami-Dade County, mostly in water and sewer fees, including hundreds of thousands already collected from taxpayers but never passed on to the county.
“I was dismayed and could not understand why the city has taken no to little action,” he wrote. “There was no support within the city to in any way, to meet these past, present and future requirements.”
He put much of the blame squarely on the most powerful person in Opa-locka: Mayor Myra Taylor, who failed to stem the growing deficits year after year, he said.
Though she is just one vote on the commission, he said Taylor has taken it upon herself to lead the city as a strong mayor.
“She had exercised a heavy hand with city managers in terms of whether or not they can speak,” he said. “That has stifled public conversation, including the financial condition of the city. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The mayor did not respond to requests for an interview.
In recent meetings, Mayor Taylor said she was upset that Shiver and his staff chose to reveal Opa-locka’s fiscal problems to the state and public without first consulting her and the commissioners.
Marko said the city manager was obliged under law to bring the budget crisis before the state, and in the process, the taxpayers.
Otherwise, “it was just going to continue to be a mess,” he said.
He said the mayor heightened the problems during a speech on Nov. 12 when she accused Shiver, who is white, of trying to create discord and expose the commission’s mistakes so “the word will get out that it took this white man to come in and straighten out black folks.” Opa-locka is 65 percent black and 35 percent Hispanic.
Marko, who is white, said the speech was filled with “racial remarks” that “shocked her counterparts and attendees” in the audience, he wrote in his resignation.
In an interview with the Herald, Marko said he was “shocked and appalled that a city mayor would say those words and continue to do so.”
He said he accepted the job in Opa-locka on Sept. 21 because he was ready for challenges and to help one of the county’s poorest cities. After spending more than two decades in county government, “I said let me go and help an impoverished community.”
Shortly after taking the job, he said he began digging into the city’s audited reports and budgets from the past five years and found troubling discrepancies.
The audits showed the city had plenty of money in some funds, but when Marko looked at the budgets, they were frequently depleted.
As revenues dwindled, city officials began tapping into water and sewer funds — traditional profit generators — so frequently the accounts were losing money each year, he said.
City officials also began turning to other sources to pay for bills at a time when the city’s revenues were plunging.
For instance, Marko said the city raided surtax funds — $800,000 in restricted money to pay for road repairs — to cover costs, prompting the county last week to suspend the city from the program.
And more recently, Marko became aware of records that showed at least $200,000 — and possibly much more — in federal forfeiture money was used to fill budget holes.
“It’s just mind-boggling,” he said. “Everything about it is wrong.”
While Marko uncovered hundreds of thousands in misspending, he said he had a surprise visit that caused him alarm.
While he was working in his office in October, he said the mayor’s husband, John Taylor, a local church leader and minister, arrived at his door.
The reason: “He said he came to see me to size me up for the mayor,” said Marko, 58. “He spent about 15 to 20 minutes in my office asking questions as to why I would want to work in the black community of Opa-locka,” Marko said in his farewell letter.
“He concluded his visit with me by telling me that no city manager or assistant city manager would ever effect any change in Opa-locka, that our positions were meaningless, and that the mayor solely runs things in Opa-locka.” Taylor could not be reached on Friday.
Marko said he realized his tenure would be short lived after Shiver laid off more than a dozen workers to help bring down costs, and the mayor raised questions during two public meetings about Shiver hiring Marko at $125,000 a year. “She clearly is displeased with my pay,” he wrote.
Tom was instrumental on drilling down on each city department and finding the deficiencies. I could not have done it without him.
Steve Shiver, city manager who clashed with the mayor
Reached on Friday, Shiver said Marko gave up a good county job to come to Opa-locka and quickly became an indispensable member of his team in identifying the budget gaps and financial shell games that were played to cover costs.
“Tom was instrumental on drilling down on each city department and finding the deficiencies,” he said. “I could not have done it without him.”
Kelvin Baker, the former city manager, and Susan Gooding-Liburd, a former finance director, who both resigned prior to Shiver’s and Marko’s arrival, did not respond to repeated requests to talk about the prior budget practices.
Chiverton said he was surprised Marko wrote such a critical resignation letter, including details of his problems with the mayor and his encounter with Taylor’s husband.
He said instead of giving Marko the option of resigning, “I could have just dismissed him.”
Marko said that when he was called into Chiverton’s office on Wednesday, he was given 40 minutes to step down voluntarily or be fired.
Commissioner Terence Pinder said he did not know about Marko’s resignation until he was told by a Herald reporter on Friday. But he said the city will fix the budget problems on its own. “Our job is to make sure that our fiscal and legislative responsibilities are met,” said Pinder, who cast the lone vote to keep Shiver.
Marko said the city is not going to be able to escape its problems without outside help. “The situation is so bad that it’s going to take something akin to what the city of Miami went through,” he said, referring to when Miami was temporarily taken over by an oversight board 15 years ago.
“They don’t have the technical expertise,” he said of Opa-locka. “They don’t have the professional expertise. The city is all but bankrupt.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.