UPDATE: Ibis Garcia, candidate for Seat One, dropped out of the race due to unforeseen medical concerns. In a letter, Garcia officially withdrew from the race on the advice of her doctor. Werner Dreher, the incumbent, is now uncontested, and will be re-elected as the commissioner for Seat One.
Due to the last minute notice, Garcia’s name will still appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, as Miami-Dade elections had already printed the ballots when she withdrew. Notices to voters will be posted at all voting locations advising them that casting a vote in that race will not affect the outcome.
On Nov. 6, residents of El Portal, the 272-acre village between Miami Shores and the Miami neighborhood of Little River, will vote on candidates for one council seat.
Although it’s small in size, with about 900 homes and just over 2,500 people, the village has a huge issue looming over its head — a $1.25 million debt stemming from the cleanup after Hurricane Irma, that the village has less than a year to pay back. Voters will have to think money when voting.
Five seats are up for election this year, but candidates for four are unopposed: Mayor Claudia Cubilos and council members Vimari Roman, Omarr Nickerson and Harold E. Mathis Jr. will remain on the council for the next two years.
Council Seat One is currently held by Werner Dreher, 43, a project manager who has held the nonpartisan position for two years. His opponent Ibis Garcia, 47, is a sound engineer who is running for the first time.
One of the biggest and most expensive issues is whether the village can pay back a debt that is just shy of 20 percent of its proposed 2018-2019 budget. The village government took out the $1.25 million credit line on July 31, 2018, to pay for the removal of debris caused by Hurricane Irma. About 23,015 cubic yards of debris — enough to fill seven Olympic-size pools — were removed, the mayor said in her 2018 State of the Village address in August.
The debris removal plunged El Portal into debt. The village applied to FEMA for reimbursement on July 26, 2018, and for the line of credit with Florida Community Bank just five days later, so it could pay for the work until the federal government reimburses El Portal. The village has a year to pay back the loan.
Consultant Gabrielle Benign reassured commissioners at a special meeting in July that FEMA would reimburse the village — within 90 days, she hoped.
Oct 17, 2018, will mark 90 days from that meeting. No other city in Miami-Dade has received any reimbursement from any federal government entity for damages caused by Irma, which struck South Florida on Sept. 10, 2017.
“I want us to be fiscally responsible,” said Dreher, who was the only council member to vote against the loan.
Dreher, a registered independent, says he will continue to find ways to cut spending. One of his proposals is to reduce council members’ salaries from $4,500 to $3,000 for the 2018-2019 year. He also wants the village to be more conservative with its expenses.
Ibis Garcia, a Democrat, said she would be disappointed if the government doesn’t pay the village back, but she’s unsure how to tackle the debt because she is not a part of the council yet.
“As a resident, I don’t have all the details of the loan and cannot answer details beyond my knowledge,” Garcia said.
Both candidates have environmental issues high on their priority list. Dreher, who has a bachelor’s degree in industrial and systems engineering and an MBA from the University of Florida, wants to continue the village’s efforts to convert homes from septic tanks to the county’s sewage treatment system. Currently in the design stage, the program can help alleviate some of the problems that plague residents after flooding from storms and hurricanes, he said. The cost will be roughly $5,000 per home.
“Irma showed me the power of the river,” said Garcia, who has a house on the Little River Canal, which runs along the village’s southern boundary. The five-year resident says elevated sea levels and pollution of the water are issues she would like to address in office.
Garcia wants the village to work on cleaning up the river, perhaps involving students from nearby El Portal Middle School in the cleanup and making it an educational program.
Garcia, who has a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Florida International University and two associate degrees in liberal arts and sound engineering from Miami Dade College and Full Sail University, said she would love to work under the leadership of Mayor Cubilos because some of their ideas overlap.
Also on Garcia’s list of priorities is street flooding. A puddle of water on the street could last for two or even three days, she said, making it the perfect cultivating ground for mosquitoes.
The next priorities for Dreher are beautification and public safety. El Portal has many tree canopies, he said, and the village wants to preserve them. The city is known for its suburban atmosphere and its streets lined with oak trees.