South Florida

Despite Opa-locka’s heavy debts, mayor sees ‘light at end of tunnel’

Opa-locka residents protest outside city hall

Opa-locka residents angry with the direction the city is heading, protest outside of city hall on Jan. 20, 2017.
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Opa-locka residents angry with the direction the city is heading, protest outside of city hall on Jan. 20, 2017.

At first, it had the feel of a church revival.

Before starting with her annual state-of-the-city speech, Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor thanked a city employee, Mary Brown, who had just belted out a soaring version of the Christian gospel song, “I’m Still Holding On” as the crowd swayed and offered rousing applause.

“The Lord told her to sing that song,” Taylor said Friday. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

After that spiritual nod, Taylor asserted that while Opa-locka has been struggling financially since she was elected mayor in 2010 and reelected four years later, she was not the root of the problem — as some of her critics insist. The city is also dealing with the cloud of an ongoing FBI corruption investigation and is under the financial control of a state oversight board.

“I take responsibility, but not the blame,” Taylor told a room of about 100 city employees, friends and politicians from Miami-Dade County’s African-American community.

Instead, Taylor faulted the high turnover of senior staff and city managers along with the hiring of too many employees while Opa-locka’s property values plunged after the nation’s financial crisis and recession. In the past six years, Opa-locka has taken on nearly $15 million in debts — an amount that is expected to take years to settle before the city is on solid financial ground.

Mayor Taylor asserted the City Commission has approved a balanced budget for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, can meet its payroll and has some money in reserve. She also said the commission is nearing completion of a five-year recovery plan.

Already, local taxpayers — nearly half of whom live in poverty — pay the highest tax rate in Florida and one of the most expensive rates for water in Miami-Dade. Businesses also complain about escalating trash pickup bills.

Nowhere has the impact taken a greater toll than on Opa-locka’s employees — nearly a dozen of whom have been laid off while the rest are forced to work shorter weeks as the city struggles to pay its bills and avoid insolvency.

But Taylor asserted the City Commission has approved a balanced budget for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, can meet its payroll and has some money in reserve. She also said the commission is nearing completion of a five-year recovery plan.

Comparing the city to a train, she said Opa-locka is moving forward: “I see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Her critics say the reality is dim. The state oversight board, which was appointed by the governor in June when the city was compelled to declare a financial emergency, has not approved the current fiscal budget and might not do so until March.

Commissioner Joseph Kelley, a reformer who was re-elected in November with the highest vote total, admitted that while some progress is being made, “it’s still an uphill battle.”

Much of the publicity about Opa-locka has centered on the FBI investigation — including a dramatic raid on City Hall in March — that led to the convictions of former City Commissioner Luis Santiago, a city manager, a public works supervisor, and Mayor Taylor’s son, Corleon. They all pleaded guilty to conspiring to extort bribes from local businesses in exchange for licenses from City Hall. The probe is expected to yield more arrests this year.

But the hardships placed on local taxpayers are among the least-known consequences of the financial breakdowns and illegal activities that have dominated the city.

Commissioner Joseph Kelley, a reformer who was re-elected in November with the highest vote total, admitted that while some progress is being made, ‘it’s still an uphill battle.’

The costs to local residents are still being tallied. Year after year, the burden grew on taxpayers as city leaders embarked on a spending spree.

Though revenues were dwindling, local officials threw catered parties, approved holiday bonuses that cost hundreds of thousands and voted for the purchase of the new City Hall for $7.8 million.

The city also owes hundreds of vendors, including more than $5 million to its largest creditor: Miami-Dade County, for water and sewage treatment.

While Taylor delivered her speech to a supportive crowd, a handful of longtime community activists staged a protest outside City Hall on Fisherman Street to call attention to what they judge to be the mayor’s failures.

Natasha Ervin, holding a sign that checked off all the problems plaguing the city, said: “All she does is lie.”

“Because Myra Taylor is our mayor is the reason why the city is in financial hardship,” Ervin said. “She is to blame.”

How corruption and mismanagement pushed Opa-locka to the edge of insolvency.

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