The well-heeled residents of Star Island didn’t need a break from Miami-Dade County last year, but they got one: the special assessment that pays for the ritzy enclave’s security gatehouse was taking a steep dip — from $5,581 a year to $1,015.
Now Miami-Dade County wants to retract that deal, part of a widespread fix of what officials say was a flawed accounting system governing hundreds of special taxing districts throughout the county.
About 118,000 properties face some sort of increase in 2016, forcing a wave of mailed notices that has left the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez apologizing for the mix-up as he gears up for a reelection campaign centered around lower taxes and good governance.
Public Works officials worked the weekend to field phone calls from taxpayers, following a string of cranky town hall meetings last week where residents fumed about higher fees.
“I think the people have every right to be angry,” said Alina Hudak, the deputy mayor who also serves as director of the Public Works department. “And they deserve an explanation. We’re here. We’ve made ourselves available.”
Of the 1,068 special districts administered by the county, only 234 face increases in 2016 — about one in five. Most of the hikes are nominal: $36 for the average property.
But some are significant: a district in Miami’s Morningside neighborhood would see its security-guard fee go from $600 a property to $1,640. Star Island, home to Emilio and Gloria Estefan and Sean Combs, faces an 800 percent increase to $9,221 under the administration’s proposed rates for 2016.
In a memo sent last week, Gimenez said the former director of the taxing-district division was “removed” and the agency reorganized. An audit is under way. County commissioners are holding a public hearing on the proposed increases on Tuesday, but a final vote is being delayed until Sept. 1 thanks to flaws in how Miami-Dade notified residents about the meeting (including a botched mailing and an incomplete ad in The Miami Herald, according to the memo).
A Gimenez spokesman said the increases will generate an extra $4.2 million in 2016, roughly 35 percent more than the $11.9 million that residents of the special districts would owe without the hikes. Officials describe it as a one-time fix, with about half of it going to close a deficit in the tax-district funds of about $2 million. Public Works said the rest of the increase will cover the higher costs of providing services in the districts — amenities like security, street lights and landscaping.
Popular with developers of new subdivisions, the districts hand the county a role traditionally held by a homeowners association. Instead of paying dues to a private entity to manage the contract for a gatehouse or cutting the grass, residents see the charges on their yearly tax bill. Miami-Dade administers the services, and is responsible for setting the rates each year.
Hudak had no details on how the under-billing occurred, except to say the division has been using a flawed system to calculate fees. The June 25 memo from Gimenez said some problems date back to the 1990s. Hudak said the proposed 2016 increases will get the billing system back on track for future years.
“We’re moving forward,” she said. “And we’re cleaning it up.”
Like a handful of other top Gimenez aides, Hudak serves as both a deputy mayor and a department chief. The 1,600-person Public Works department lacks a full-time director, part of the cost-saving approach Gimenez brought to county government when he first took office in 2011. He also declined to appoint a county manager, choosing to serve as the county’s primary administrator himself. (The voters had already amended the county charter to eliminate the position by the end of 2012).
Michael Hernández, Gimenez’s communications director, praised Hudak’s response to fix the billing problem once it was discovered and said the foul-up was not grounds to turn over Public Works to a full-time director.
“The mayor has full confidence in Alina’s ability to hold both the post of deputy mayor and director,” Hernandez said.
Gimenez plans to make his 2011 tax cut a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, and the county’s overall tax rate is about 12 percent lower than it was when he took office. In his memo to commissioners, Gimenez said he’s been pressing county lawyers to find a way to phase in the increases, but that legal restrictions and other issues require the fees to match costs this year. He noted that while 97 percent of the increases amount to $100 or less, “I am concerned about the impact of any increase on our residents.”
Lenny Feldman, a lawyer who also serves as president of the Sky Lakes-Highland Lakes Homeowners Association, said his community near Aventura includes six taxing districts, where the proposed increases range from around $100 to close to $2,000. He’s urging the county to reset the rates to cover current costs, but not force residents to make up deficits caused by bad calculations in past years. He said it’s particularly unfair to new homeowners suddenly forced to pay for services they never used.
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” Feldman said. “Now you have to go back and pay $1,900.”