Miami-Dade County

Governor declares financial emergency in Opa-locka

Opa-locka’s iconic, moorish City Hall — now shuttered — has become a symbol of the fiscal condition of the city, now under a state-declared financial emergency.
Opa-locka’s iconic, moorish City Hall — now shuttered — has become a symbol of the fiscal condition of the city, now under a state-declared financial emergency. wmichot@miamiherald.com

With Opa-locka on the edge of bankruptcy, Gov. Rick Scott declared a financial emergency for the city on Wednesday, calling for a special oversight board to take over the city’s finances and stem the bleeding that has led to crippling debts and cutbacks that have impacted every level of government.

The executive order comes just weeks after Miami-Dade County officials sent letters to the governor warning that the city could be shut down because of gaping budget shortfalls in the millions.

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“It’s finally coming to end,” said Steve Shiver, a former city manager who called for the state to step in last year after turning up grave financial problems. “This is long, long overdue. It’s critical that they find the true financial picture of Opa-locka.”

The state will appoint members of the oversight board to monitor the spending of every city department — the second time the city of 16,000 residents has been placed under an emergency since 2002.

“We are deeply concerned about this community and all the residents that live in Opa-locka,” said McKinley Lewis, Scott’s spokesman. “The governor’s office has been in constant communication with local officials and will continue to work with them on ways to fix the issues facing this community.”

Scott’s order was released late Wednesday, just as the city commission voted to request that the governor set up a “financial oversight committee” but stopped short of publicly declaring a financial emergency.

Civic activists who attended the meeting expressed surprise when they learned that the governor had taken a more dramatic step. “This is a total surprise,” said Natasha Ervin. “But if we’re in a state of emergency, I’m happy.”

At nearly every step, the Opa-locka commission — harshly criticized by county officials for not acting sooner to stop the spiraling debts — will need approval to take any actions that could affect the city’s finances, according to the order. That means the city would need the oversight board’s permission to spend any significant amount of money.

For months, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez had urged Scott to issue the order — a rare action taken only when local governments are in serious fiscal trouble — while the FBI carries out a sweeping corruption investigation targeting some of the city’s most prominent leaders, including Mayor Myra Taylor, City Manager David Chiverton and City Commissioner Luis Santiago.

Not since the late Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered a takeover of the city of Miami — with a $68 million shortfall — has a Miami-Dade city captured so much attention over a financial crisis. Just last week, one of the outspoken critics of the city’s handling of the budget, Commissioner Terence Pinder, took his own life by crashing his SUV into a tree. His death came two days before he was to turn himself in to Miami-Dade prosecutors in a state corruption case.

Scott’s order comes nearly nine months after Shiver, who had been hired as city manager in September, discovered millions in undisclosed debts. Despite efforts by Mayor Taylor to deal with the problems internally, Shiver wrote to the governor, revealing nearly $8 million in debts.

“The city can’t pay its bills,” he said at the time. Shiver was fired in November in a 3-1 voted led by the mayor, who accused the manager of taking the issue to the governor without consulting the commission.

Longtime resident Alvin Burke, who attended the meeting on Wednesday, said the commissioners had never discussed a financial emergency. When told by a Miami Herald reporter of the governor’s order, Burke said he was “elated. That’s great news. It took long enough.”

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