Miami-Dade County

Special election called to form new city outside of Aventura and North Miami Beach

Voters in an area outside North Miami Beach and Aventura will decide this November whether to break off from Miami-Dade County's municipal services and form their own city.
Voters in an area outside North Miami Beach and Aventura will decide this November whether to break off from Miami-Dade County's municipal services and form their own city. Miami Herald file | 2013

Residents of an enclave between Aventura and North Miami Beach have the chance to form their own city this November after Miami-Dade commissioners approved a special election authorizing the area to exit from the county's municipal services and taxing structure.

There's no proposed name yet for the area of about 20,000 people in Northeast Miami-Dade, which includes the Highland Lakes, Skylake, and Ojus neighborhoods. If voters in the proposed municipality vote yes, it would be on track to become Miami-Dade's 35th city and revive an incorporation effort that stalled after the formation of Cutler Bay in South Dade in 2005.

Neighbors are divided, with some residents at Tuesday's commission meeting warning of higher taxes and increased development once the area breaks away from Miami-Dade's massive "unincorporated" services area.

That taxing district includes all land outside city boundaries, is home to more than 1 million people, and relies on the county for municipal services like trash pickup, police and road maintenance. Property owners in the Unincorporated Municipal Service Area pay some of the lowest tax rates in the county for local services.

"We are happy with the county," said Oni Fernandez, who spoke against granting the election at the commission meeting. "New police, new fire. Our taxes will go up." She also predicted a small local government would be more vulnerable to developers relaxing zoning rules. "The name of the game is going to be all of the high-rises," she said.

A proposed $9 million yearly budget for the new government shows the hypothetical city retaining most county services on a contract basis, meaning Miami-Dade would continue providing police, trash pickup and other government functions for yearly fees. The area's current municipal tax rate on property would shift to the new city's property tax rate. The city would also remain within the separate taxing districts for county libraries and fire services, but could eventually break off to handle those functions itself.

Supporters of the plan see the new city providing a better mix of services once locally elected officials preside over a new, small government.

"We know we can afford to become a city without raising taxes," said Alan Hecht, advocate for the election. "We want to have the right to vote."

The area covers about $1.1 billion worth of real estate. It currently pays out about $7 million a year in the municipal tax to Miami-Dade but only receives about $6 million in services. The median income is about $47,000 per household, slightly higher than Miami-Dade's $44,224. The poverty rate for the area is about 15 percent, lower than the 18 percent countywide rate.

If a majority of the roughly 11,000 registered voters within the area approve the incorporation plan on Election Day, then Miami-Dade would form a panel to write a city charter. That document would then return to voters for approval, allowing the new municipality to officially break away from Miami-Dade and become its own local government under the county. Residents would continue paying the countywide property taxes.

Incorporating Miami-Dade suburbs remains one of the most contentious issues facing commissioners, with some residents eager for a smaller government to provide local services and others seeing creeping taxes with the formation of a new layer of bureaucracy.

Advocates like the idea of Miami-Dade's getting out of the city-services game to focus on countywide issues, but critics see incorporation removing more affluent areas from the unincorporated tax base while leaving more needy areas to fend for themselves.

Miami-Dade held its first hearing on the incorporation in 2005, starting a process that is approaching its first public vote 13 years later. "This is a community that has been exhausted" by the process, said Commissioner Sally Heyman, who represents the area and championed the incorporation vote.