Over its 15-year history, Doral has maintained one of the lowest property tax rates in Miami-Dade County. But now officials in the fastest-growing city in Florida hope residents will agree to pay a little more so the quality of its parks can keep up with demand.
The City Council agreed in May to put the question before voters in November of whether to increase taxes to finance a $150 million bond for major renovations at city parks. On Wednesday, the council approved the language of the November ballot referendum.
If the measure is approved, officials estimate the owner of a median-value home in Doral would pay $131 a year more over the life of a 30-year general obligation bond.
Most of that money would go toward overhauling 82-acre Doral Central Park, which sits near the United States Southern Command (and the offices of the Miami Herald) in the city's main business district south of Northwest 33rd Street and west of 87th Avenue. A smaller amount is earmarked for projects elsewhere.
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Since its incorporation in 2003, Doral has gone from having zero parks to having seven. But city leaders say many big-ticket improvements have languished in the planning stage for years, lacking the money to move forward.
The concept of a bond referendum for parks funding was floated as early as 2005.
"Central Park has always had a very ambitious plan attached to it," said Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez, Doral's founding mayor who was elected for a second go-around in 2016. "There's nothing worse than committing to do something and then not having the funds to do what people expect you to do," Bermudez said.
The park was initially named for Bermudez — J.C. Bermudez Park — but after he was term-limited out, the City Council voted to change the name in 2015 in a politically charged move.
Parts of Doral still have a rural feel — exemplified by the cow that escaped its pasture and blocked traffic right outside the park earlier this year. But the city continues to transform. From 2010 to 2016, the population spiked from about 46,000 to 58,000, double the number the city had in 2003, when it incorporated. Doral has become a destination not only for foreign investors and businesses, but also for young families.
In surveys and forums during a recent master planning process, residents voiced a desire for more park space, indoor recreation and aquatics facilities. With the general obligation bond, the city could address those wishes in one fell swoop.
"I think now is the time to kind of take it up a notch," said Councilwoman Claudia Mariaca. "Doral Central Park is a huge area that needs major redevelopment, and in order to do that we really need the help."
Today, Central Park consists of a large lake, trees and a biking and jogging trail, but amenities are sparse. Officials have calculated that much of the money could pay for a new community center, swimming pools, a dog park, a skate park, two playgrounds, a waterfront promenade, courts for tennis, basketball and beach volleyball, and six miles of trails.
Elsewhere in the city, proceeds from the bond would go toward adding five miles to existing bike trails and building an indoor cultural facility at Downtown Doral Park.
It's a relatively expensive proposal for a municipality of Doral's size. According to data from the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which is advising Doral and has worked with many local governments on land conservation campaigns, only six ballot measures in Florida have asked residents for more than $150 million in conservation funding since 1998. All of those were at the state or county level.
Voters in Cutler Bay, whose population is around 45,000, rejected a proposal earlier this month to finance $40 million in bonds for parks and open space.
Doral Councilwoman Christi Fraga said the city could potentially pay for the proposed improvements without borrowing, but it would take much longer. While there is no precise timetable for construction if the bond is approved, officials — and, they believe, their constituents — are tired of seeing the projects stall.
"We have found that, to be able to provide the services we are lacking as a community and also taking into account the high standards the community has, this is the best way to provide these services to the community expeditiously," Fraga said.
Voters will get the final say. While the city engaged the Trust for Public Land more than a year ago to consider a referendum, many residents are just now learning of the details. Chris Mazzola, one of Doral's "founding fathers," said he wants to make sure the plan is measured, given that taxpayers would foot the bill.
"On the one hand, I definitely think that doing these kinds of community parks and so forth are really important to do," Mazzola said. "But on the other hand, it's also important to do what we can afford. It's that balance that I'm a little concerned about."
The city will host workshops starting in August to educate the community. But there is no intention to make any major changes between now and November.
"A lot of research and preparation went into the decision of the bond, its amount and the included projects," said communications manager Maggie Santos, who works under the city manager, Edward Rojas. "There are no plans to change the amount or details."
The five-person City Council unanimously agreed May 23 to move ahead with a referendum to coincide with the Nov. 6 general election.
Under state law, the referendum must be limited to 75 words. That restricts the ability to lay out specific expenditures, but the city would be bound to put the money toward parks and recreational facilities more broadly. If the measure passes, the city would set up an oversight committee made up of residents, city staff and elected officials.
Santos said the city could either receive the $150 million all at once, or in incremental amounts tied to specific projects.
Across Florida, general obligation bond votes for spending on parks and public land have a high rate of success. Over the past two decades, 87 of 107 such measures have been approved, according to the Trust for Public Land.
Miami voters approved a $400 million bond last November to address flooding, affordable housing and other projects.
At the county level, Miami-Dade's parks department has weighed the idea of a ballot referendum for additional parks spending in recent years, but the concept has not yet advanced past the exploratory stage.
Doral officials are now allowed to educate the public and express personal opinions on the proposal, but the city cannot spend any money to advocate for it. Typically, private citizens' groups form to support or oppose general obligation bonds.
Bermudez hopes the voters see it his way.
"I think this bond would improve everybody’s quality of life and everybody’s property values," he said. "If you feel that it's proper, you can vote yes. If for some reason or another you don't feel that it's proper or don't want it, then vote no."