Plundering a small town
By the time time Natasha Ervin rushed to the Opa-locka airport, the body of Terence Pinder had already been pulled from the black SUV that barreled into the side of a banyan tree.
The 43-year-old city commissioner had killed himself by deliberately driving into the tree at 80 miles per hour just days before he was to turn himself in to state agents on bribery charges.
For Ervin, seeing the crushed car on that bright morning in May was the culmination of months of drama as her city unraveled.
With millions in debts, Opa-locka was close to bankrupt. Local city leaders were shaking down business owners in parking lots for cash bribes. And Miami-Dade County had just cut off the city from getting any more public funds.
Ervin and other residents would not just witness the breakdowns — but feel them.
“You get to a point where you say to yourself: What happened to this place?” said Ervin, a mother of three. “How did we get there?”
During a heated commission meeting two weeks ago, Vice Mayor Joseph Kelley broke his silence and offered harsh words to his fellow commissioners and the city manager for the chronic problems.
“I’m just sick and tired of it,” said Kelley, 54, a reform politician who frequently votes in the minority. “I’m not just going to sit back and not sound the alarm. Who is speaking for them? Who is speaking for the residents?”
His outburst came after weeks of meetings with taxpayers who are just now learning the costs they will be forced to pay for years of financial failures.
In the past six years, Opa-locka has taken on nearly $15 million in debts — an amount that’s expected to take years to settle before the city is on solid financial ground.
To this day, local taxpayers — more than a third of whom live in poverty— pay the highest tax rate in Florida and one of the most expensive rates for water in Miami-Dade.
Nowhere has the impact taken a greater toll than on Opa-locka’s employees — nearly a dozen of whom have lost their jobs through lay offs while the rest are forced to work fewer hours as the city struggles to pay its bills and avoid insolvency.
For the last year, the city has been in the news for a host of reasons, including the FBI investigation that led to the convictions of the city manager, a public works supervisor, and the son of Mayor Myra Taylor, and the state takeover of the city’s finances in June.
But the hardships placed on local taxpayers are among the least known consequences of the financial breakdowns and corruption that have dominated the city.
The costs to local residents are still being tallied.
“They pay the highest taxes. They pay the highest water [bills],” said Steve Barrett, a former vice mayor who helped form a citywide citizens coalition last month. “This community is suffering. The [elected leaders] didn’t give a damn.”
Year after year, the burden grew on taxpayers as city leaders embarked on a spending spree that would rival any small city in Florida, records show.
Though revenues were dwindling — partly as a result of a dramatic downturn in the real estate market — local officials led by Mayor Taylor went in the opposite direction: spending money at a pace that soon shifted the burden onto taxpayers.
They threw catered parties, approved holiday bonuses that cost hundreds of thousands, and voted for the purchase of the new City Hall for $7.8 million.
Dozens of new employees were hired, bringing the total to more than 200 — nearly twice as many as other cities the size of Opa-locka.
Homeowners like Pamela Butler watched their taxes increase, from $944 a decade ago to more than $1,240 last year. “After awhile, I will not be able to pay,” said Butler, a finance office worker who lives in a modest home on Northwest 140th Street.
While officials continued to spend, local officials turned to another source of public money — and misspent it — putting the city deeper into debt.
When city officials wanted to build a glitzy video display and water fountains to promote Opa-locka and elected leaders on Northwest 27th Avenue, they dipped into Miami-Dade surtax money — funds meant for street improvements and similar projects. The county has since ordered the city to return more than $700,000.
Other money awarded by the state was cut off that was set aside for critical drainage projects to relieve dangerous flooding in poorer, older neighborhoods.
The reason: City officials failed to submit basic paperwork and in some cases, engaged in improper bidding, records and interviews show.
After rainy mornings, young children have to wade through thick muck and jump over puddles just to reach their school buses on Northwest 131st Street, said Joe Aguirre, a storage business executive. “It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “[The drainage] should have been fixed a long time ago. It’s pathetic.”
Not until the arrival of City Manager Steve Shiver last year did most residents learn about the persistent misspending and breakdowns that placed the government in danger.
Shiver discovered the city owed hundreds of vendors, including more than $5 million to its largest creditor: Miami-Dade County, for water and sewage treatment.
Shortly before he was fired in November 2015, he warned the city was heading toward insolvency, prompting some residents to show up at commission meetings to challenge Taylor and the commissioners.
“We didn’t know we had no money,” said Ervin, 48, who runs a catering shop and tax preparation service. “They kept saying we’re just fine.”
A publicized FBI raid on City Hall in March revealed additional problems of widespread corruption that many residents suspected for years, she said.
Two months later, the suicide death of Pinder — a onetime reform candidate — while under criminal investigation would show the depth of the illicit activities.
But it wasn’t until residents felt the problems in a far more direct way — their water bills — that they agreed to organize the first community coalition in a decade.
Because of chronic flaws in the water collection system, thousands of bills were sent in September with inflated charges — in some cases, 20 times the monthly cost.
For days, scores of residents descended on City Hall, waving their bills and demanding to see the mayor and city manager over the charges.
“I was shocked,” said Clara Way, 85, a retired nurse’s aide who showed a bill for more than $700 —10 times her past charges. “I don’t have that kind of money.”
Another resident, George Suarez, confronted officials at City Hall about his $1,175 bill, but they responded that he probably had a leak. He hired a plumber for $175 and found out it was not the case.
The following month, his bill jumped even higher — all for a family of four. “This is Robin Hood in reverse,” said Suarez, a catering chef whose bill was normally $58.
After waves of complaints, city officials backed down, saying they will monitor the meters for better readings, but the invoices left residents fuming.
Dozens have since met with Vice Mayor Kelley, who has promised to press the utility department to resolve the billing issues, which stemmed in part from failed meter reading devices.
“It’s not personal with me — it’s personal with these 16,000, 17,000 residents,” he said at a commission meeting last week.
The repairs to the billing system, including the hiring of a consultant, are expected to add more expenses.
Though buried in debt, the city will still have to pay its past creditors, including millions to Miami-Dade County, say members of a state oversight board.
Those bearing the costs will be the taxpayers, says Barrett, who has openly criticized the commission during meetings. For a city with an operational budget of just $14 million, the payments will be daunting.
“This is a poor community,” said Barrett. “Come out here on one of the days when they’re giving out free food in the parks. The people start lining up at 6 in the morning.”
By the time the city’s debts are paid, “the people running the city won’t even be around,” he said. “We’re the ones who are going to have to pay.”
Michael Sallah: 305-962-2218, @MikeSallah7
Jay Weaver: 305-376-3446, @jayhweaver