After years of allowing scores of favored customers to tap into Opa-locka’s water system without paying their bills — including Mayor Myra Taylor and her family — the city pledged to stop the practice that cost it hundreds of thousands of dollars while it was edging toward bankruptcy.
During a heated meeting in which local officials were lambasted by the state’s chief inspector general, City Manager Yvette Harrell said she ordered her employees to crack down on customers who owe money, including the mayor’s Vankara School, which has not paid nearly $120,000.
For people who owe more than $10,000 in overdue bills, the city will impose liens on the properties, with demands for payment, Harrell told the state’s financial emergency board.
Her pledge to board members was announced just days after a Miami Herald investigation revealed that Opa-locka let dozens of customers — including the politically connected — keep getting water, despite years of running up overdue bills.
I expected integrity. Instead it’s a continuation of corruption. I’ve seen the heart and soul of the people of Opa-locka bleed.
chief of the state oversight board for Opa-locka
The Opa-locka Flea Market, which has employed city commissioners, owes more than $120,000, while contractor George Howard, a close associate of the mayor’s husband, Bishop John Taylor, has owed $13,000 for several years without making a payment.
Known as the “Friends and Family Plan,” the city’s waiving of delinquent bills persisted for years.
The promise to end the illicit practices — which include public works crews shaking down customers for bribes to keep their water on — came after a blistering speech by chairwoman Melinda Miguel, who said the city’s leaders failed to rein in practices that have plagued the city for years
“I expected integrity,” she said. “Instead it’s a continuation of corruption. I’ve seen the heart and soul of the people of Opa-locka bleed.”
The inspector general, who called into the meeting by phone from Tallahassee, announced she was bringing in former Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett Stierheim as a consultant to help wade through the budget issues and operational breakdowns in the city, which has just enough money for another month.
“He will be my eyes and ears,” Miguel said.
Board member Frank Rollason, the manager of North Bay Village who sat with Stierheim on a similar state panel a generation ago during Miami’s financial meltdown, said the former county manager will quickly zero in on weaknesses in the city government.
“He’ll be combing through this stuff even before we do,” he said.
For two months, the state board has been meeting to look for ways to help the city survive on plunging revenues at the same time debts are insurmountable.
But Thursday’s meeting was by far the most heated, with board members openly critical of the city’s willingness to turn over information or root out problems on its own.
Miguel questioned whether employees were stealing gas from the city, and expressed frustration over whether she was getting critical data from city administrators.
Before the meeting ended, she and board members ordered Mayor Taylor and commissioners to turn in their city vehicles and credit cards, though Commissioner Joseph Kelley said he had already turned in his SUV and card.
“I’m done asking people to do the right thing,” Rollason said. “The message here is everyone has to tighten their belt.”
For most of the meeting, which lasted six hours, Harrell was once again hit with dozens of questions, in many cases defending herself.
At one point, Rollason asked why she had not shared information with the board that Community Redevelopment Agency Director Ed Brown had been accused of using a city credit card for dinners and other purchases not permitted — a charge that Brown had denied.
“We — as a board — are entitled to know,” Rollason said. “We are talking about the survival of Opa-locka. This is not a joke. This is serious.”
Harrell said that she did not know about the flap over the spending. “I hear you. I agree. But I can’t speculate about something that I don’t know about in an open forum, “ she said. “I won’t do that.”
With money running out in the general fund — and $8 million owed to creditors — Miguel and other board members have talked about the possibility of filing for bankruptcy.
“We’re at the tipping point,” said Rollason, a former Miami administrator.
Harrell said most of her departments have proposed cuts of about 25 percent, and are looking for ways to slash even more costs. But it will be three months before the city receives property taxes from the county to bring in badly needed revenue.
So far, board members are reluctant to allow the city to raid the water and sewer fund, which has more than $1.5 million.
Both Miguel and Rollason said the board would have to conduct a forensic audit of every layer of Opa-locka’s government, which would be costly.
“I know it’s expensive, but that should be the ultimate goal,” Rollason said.
Board members said they hope Stierheim, the new consultant, will help them find ways to keep the city from insolvency.
The 82-year-old retired administrator is best known for running the county during the tumult following the McDuffie riots and Mariel boatlift, two events that transformed Miami-Dade. He also alerted the state to the city of Miami’s crisis two decades ago when it showed a stunning $68 million deficit.
The former county manager, who has worked as a troubleshooting consultant in his retirement, said the problems in Opa-locka are serious.
“I will be doing an assessment of the professional competence, skill and ethics of the city staff,” said Stierheim, who will be volunteering his services as a deputized inspector general. “I’ll be talking to a lot of people,” he said.
Known as a firm but fair administrator during his two stints as county manager, he said he realizes Opa-locka’s government has never been in such dire financial shape. His goal, he said, is simple: “I would like to contribute to the continued existence of the city. I don’t want to see the city dissolved.”
Steve Shiver, a former city manager who was fired last year after he disclosed Opa-locka’s failed finances to the state, said he was heartened by the oversight board’s stance on Thursday. The orders for the mayor and commissioners to turn in their vehicles sends a message “that they are not going to accept what has been going on there for so long,” he said. “This is one of the best things that could have happened for the residents.”