Sewage saga in Hialeah: County says city ‘bypassed’ regulations to let businesses open

Michael Carballosa owns Dance Urge Dance Academy in Hialeah, which is one of dozens of businesses caught up in what the county describes as a rogue permitting operation by Hialeah.
Michael Carballosa owns Dance Urge Dance Academy in Hialeah, which is one of dozens of businesses caught up in what the county describes as a rogue permitting operation by Hialeah. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Inside his father’s Hialeah warehouse, Michael Carballosa teaches aspiring dancers how to stretch, samba and spin on pointed toes. That’s been Carballosa’s dream for years, but now it only lives on month-to-month after receiving a city business permit that Miami-Dade said violates sewage rules.

“If you kick me out now, my dream is over,” the 31-year-old owner of Dance Urge Dance Academy said recently. “I love what I do. I love kids and watching them do what they love.”

Officially, that dream never should have been allowed to unfold at the dance academy off West 27th Street. The storefront is one of 98 businesses on a list that Miami-Dade said received city clearance during the three years that Hialeah “bypassed” county limits on sewage flows designed to avoid spills and the discharge of human waste into neighborhood streets.

While most probably would have gotten county approval anyway, the dance academy and more than two dozen other businesses were using pipes attached to sewage facilities already over-burdened or in disrepair to the point that Miami-Dade would have rejected the requests and forced Hialeah to deny the business permits, county administrators said. Instead, the city issued “temporary business tax” certificates required before businesses can open.

“This is a systemic problem,” said Lee Hefty, Miami-Dade’s director of the Department of Environmental Resources, an agency best known as DERM. “We have evidence that some were actually denied by DERM, but the city went ahead and issued them anyway.”

Hialeah has so far kept mum on the county’s allegation that the city spent years collecting tens of thousands of dollars on temporary business permits issued after ignoring requirements for Miami-Dade approvals. Mayor Carlos Hernandez declined multiple interview requests, and his office did not respond to a list of written questions.

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez would not respond to questions about what Miami-Dade regulators described as the city’s bypassing county sewage regulations and issuing permits for businesses using sewer facilities that were deemed unable to safely handle increased usage. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Hefty said the dance academy was one of the businesses rejected by Miami-Dade before Hialeah’s permitting arm opted to ignore county rules and issue a city business permit. County records show the academy’s location had previously been a plumbing shop. Shifting to a school, with the potential for dozens of new bathroom users per day, required county approval for a more intensive use of the sewer pipes connecting to a pump station a half a block away.

That city-owned pump station, which uses machinery to siphon raw sewage from homes and businesses to a treatment plant, was placed under county restrictions in 2014 after regulators determined it was receiving too much wastewater to handle safely. The restrictions were upgraded to an “absolute moratorium” on increased sewage flows in 2015, a freeze that Miami-Dade says is currently in place for fewer than 15 percent of the sewer systems countywide.

With the moratorium in place, Miami-Dade rejected the dance academy’s request for a “certificate of use” permit in November 2016, according to a county summary released this week. But Dance Urge was allowed to open by Hialeah, which ultimately issued a temporary business permit in 2018, Carballosa said. It was a municipal decision that Miami-Dade administrators said defied county rules designed to protect neighborhoods from sewage spills caused by overwhelmed pump stations.

“It’s hard to imagine they didn’t know that,” Hefty said. Carlos Hernandez, the county administrator in charge of sewage-capacity reviews, said the “absolute moratorium” status of that pump station was severe enough that Hialeah must have known Miami-Dade wouldn’t approve expanded sewage flows there. “They absolutely knew what was required,” said Hernandez, who isn’t related to the Hialeah mayor.

Allowing businesses like the Dance Urge Dance Academy to use city sewage facilities already at capacity violated county and court-ordered rules governing wastewater systems across Miami-Dade, according to an Oct. 4 letter from Hefty to Hernandez, the city mayor.

The letter included a proposed settlement that would mean good news for Carballosa, since it would allow the businesses with unauthorized permits to continue operating while Hialeah improves the municipal sewer system.

It proposed a $75,000 fine for the county’s second-largest city, a tiny amount in the context of Hialeah’s annual budget topping $270 million. Mayor Hernandez hasn’t accepted, and county regulators and Hialeah administrators have scheduled a meeting Nov. 12 to discuss next steps. It’s not known how much the upgrades might cost the city.

“We want to work with the businesses to bring them into compliance,” Hefty said. He added that Hialeah has begun some sewage upgrades, allowing six businesses to be moved from the troubled list and cleared for operation.

The permits Hialeah issued threaten to violate court-ordered rules governing sewage systems across Miami-Dade, Hefty said. A 2013 settlement of a federal suit by the Environmental Protection Agency requires Miami-Dade to perform about $2 billion worth of upgrades to sewage facilities, as well as maintain an extensive monitoring and regulation network that includes capping capacity when pump stations are at risk of failure.

Hefty said Miami-Dade contacted the EPA when it found out Hialeah had “bypassed” the county’s approval process for increased sewage flows. He said the agency endorsed giving the city a chance to upgrade the maxed-out facilities rather than immediately closing businesses improperly using them.

County administrators say it was one of Hernandez’s own deputies who revealed the rogue permitting operation that was circumventing the kind of routine approvals Miami-Dade issues for new and expanding businesses in cities across the county. For existing commercial spaces, new businesses must receive county approval for uses that can put more strain on the sewer system — such as changing from an office to a restaurant.

Though Miami-Dade says 98 businesses were issued city permits after bypassing county review, the bulk probably would have been approved if Hialeah had followed proper procedures, according to a county summary. Thirty-four businesses were flagged as operating in a portion of Hialeah where the sewer system was under a moratorium due to capacity limits. Miami-Dade would not have authorized extra strain on sewage facilities in that area, but Hialeah either didn’t ask or ignored rejections, county administrators said

“We don’t know how the system broke down,” said Lourdes Gomez, deputy director of Miami-Dade’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, which oversees permitting.

In May, Miami-Dade’s Hernandez received an urgent text message from Hialeah’s director of public works. The director, Armando Vidal, told the county’s Carlos Hernandez he had discovered a problem with dozens of city business licenses: They were issued without first receiving county approval for sewage capacity.

“He presented me with that list,” said Hernandez, the chief of Miami-Dade’s wastewater-permitting section. “He says he was bypassed.”

Vidal declined to comment for this story and referred all questions to Mayor Hernandez and Jonathan Martinez, the mayor’s executive officer. Neither responded to requests for comment, including written questions submitted to the mayor’s office.

The sewage saga, first reported by Univision, has left Carballosa and other Hialeah business owners baffled as to their fates, and why they were required to spend thousands of dollars on city permits the county has since called invalid.

Permit costs vary by business, but multiple sources peg the yearly cost at under $200 for a restaurant or dance academy opening in Hialeah. The city also declined to answer questions from the Herald on the matter. For businesses purchasing what Miami-Dade said were unauthorized temporary permits, the costs have been significant.

It used to cost 63-year-old Jorge Valente $1,300 every three months to renew the temporary license for his West 25th Street catering business. Since July 2018, Valente said, he’s been waiting for the city to fix a water and sewer pump to get his permanent license.

Valente said that if the city had been upfront about the sewage issues, he wouldn’t have invested more than $1 million in rent and equipment to keep his company, Jorge Catering Service, going.

“I got my retirement laying on that business, and now I don’t even know what the hell is going to happen,” he said.

At Pa’ Comer Cuban Pizza on West 23rd Street, Elizabeth Borges said she has spent the last several years paying about $600 every three months for two temporary business permits — one for the restaurant and one for takeout and delivery.

“It’s always been my fear that one day they come in and say ‘you can’t have your business,’ ” Borges, 33, said in Spanish.

Carballosa had the same fear. For years, he said city administrators told him a permanent license wasn’t possible until Hialeah fixed a sewage pump near the West 27th Street studio. The Dance Urge Dance Academy has paid $1,163.72 since its first 90-day permit from 2018, Carballosa said.

He insists that while the dance academy was deemed a more intensive sewage use by county regulators, his academy only has 30 students total and is open for only four hours a day.

He’s spent far more just getting the academy running at a site Miami-Dade says never should have been authorized. He said his money is tied up in the small studio after he made renovations to convert the warehouse’s concrete floor to tile for the students. Adding to his stress recently: an August call from a Hialeah employee saying the city wasn’t going to issue another temporary business-tax permit, leaving him feeling even more in limbo and confused.

“We can only trust in God I guess,” Carballosa said, “because honestly, it’s lie after lie.”