As Miami’s government decides how exactly to spend $400 million it is borrowing to prevent flooding, build affordable housing and improve parks, it will look for advice from the residents who agreed to tax themselves to pay off the debt.
Several activist groups and politicians celebrated the November vote approving the Miami Forever bond, which allows the city to take on the debt and leverage property tax dollars to pay it off. But now community groups are pushing commissioners to make sure a diverse group of individuals representing neighborhoods across the city will have input on how projects are planned and funded.
“We’ve got to get this right,” Commissioner Ken Russell said at Thursday’s commission meeting.
Miami will create a 10-year citizen oversight board with the power to review projects funded by bond money and make recommendations to the City Commission, which will make the final decisions.
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Seven people will sit on the board, with one appointed by each of the five commissioners, one appointed on a rotating basis by a different commissioner each year, and one appointed by Mayor Francis Suarez. Board members must live in the city of Miami, and the board will have to include community activists. Most members will serve two-year terms, except for the rotating members, whose terms will last one year.
On Thursday, commissioners established the citizen board under these parameters in a key vote that begins the process for community engagement on how the $400 million is allocated.
As advertised during the campaign for the bond, certain amounts are already bunched into spending categories:
▪ $192 million for drainage upgrades, anti-flooding pumps and seawall improvements, all adaptation projects in the face of sea level rise.
▪ $100 million for affordable housing and economic development.
▪ $78 million for parks and cultural facilities.
▪ $23 million for road improvements.
▪ $7 million for public safety.
The city will tackle the projects over the next several years. Officials are facing pressure to satisfy a diverse city with a wide spectrum of needs across different neighborhoods and demographics.
Some commissioners noted that the board has to have some professionals who know about funding public projects so they can properly scrutinize plans and challenge assumptions — “people that know about costs, and people that know about bonds,” said Commissioner Manolo Reyes.
Several community groups are calling for inclusion of minorities so that traditionally underrepresented communities aren’t left out.
“If you include black and brown people, people from the community, you’ll change the dynamic,” said Trenise Bryant, an activist who attended Thursday’s meeting. She hopes low-income communities will get a fair shake when the money is doled out.
She was one of several people who spoke as part of a network of organizations and individuals known as the Miami Climate Alliance. Several members representing different organizations under the umbrella group voiced concerns in a recent letter to Suarez that “government has not paid sufficient attention to our vulnerable communities, leaving many communities with broken promises and failed policies that further deepen the divide between rich and poor and diminish trust in government.”
“We believe this bond has the potential to counteract the distrust that inequality brings, and instead to elevate the voices and well-being of those who are most vulnerable to sea level rise, hurricanes, poverty, homelessness, and other factors that threaten our ability to be resilient and thrive as a city,” reads the letter, signed by six leaders of community organizations.
Maggie Fernandez, a leader in the alliance and president of Sustainable Miami, told the Miami Herald she was pleased with the commission’s willingness to incorporate the alliance’s recommendations for the composition of the board.
“Engagement in the process from the beginning does work,” she said. “We shouldn’t be so jaded.”
Still, oversight board members have yet to be named and projects have yet to be vetted.
Zelalem Adefris, climate resilience program manager for Catalyst Miami and a member of the alliance, urged commissioners to follow through on appointing a diverse oversight board and approving a strong set of initial projects that will show the community the worth of the bond issue.
“I think this is setting a precedent,” she said. “We really need to do a really amazing job with this first batch of projects.”