Opa-locka finances need state oversight

Mayor Myra L. Taylor, on the dais with Vice Mayor Timothy Holmes, at a special meeting where the city manager was fired.
Mayor Myra L. Taylor, on the dais with Vice Mayor Timothy Holmes, at a special meeting where the city manager was fired. Miami Herald

It’s obvious that Opa-locka’s elected officials are incapable of carrying out the duties expected of them. The city is a financial train wreck, but it was no accident. If it’s possible to walk into trouble with eyes wide open, while at the same time blind to the inevitable consequences, Opa-locka’s administration, under Mayor Myra Taylor, is the perfect example.

The city’s financial crisis has been a long time coming. This fall, former City Manager Steve Shiver asked the state of Florida for assistance. The city had an $8 million deficit. Little has improved. Tellingly, it seems that the deficit didn’t bother most of the city’s commissioners so much as the fact that Mr. Shiver went public with the ugly financial situation.

“It seems he wanted to expose everything we did wrong,” said Mayor Taylor. Her priorities are supremely out of whack.

The City Commision fired Mr. Shiver on a 3-1 vote. He had been on the job for three months — and already been accused by a local contractor of soliciting a $150,000 bribe on behalf of the mayor. Both denied the allegations.

And as for exposing what the city has done wrong, the feds are already on it, conducting a corruption probe. The FBI is investigating allegations of kickback schemes involving municipal deals during the past year. And agents’ interest has been piqued by what could be the most nefarious deal of all: the city’s purchase of Town Center One, a building that was supposed to be the city’s crowning glory of a government center — all done with smoke, mirrors and the sin of omission. The city never disclosed that it was broke; never knew or, perhaps, turned a blind eye to the fact that the office building was only pulling in half the rental income that it had in previous years.

In the meantime, property values were dropping, while city administration played a shell game by using county funds dedicated to transit projects to fill the gaps elsewhere. It didn’t go unnoticed by residents that the city was leasing comfy SUVs for commissioners or that the phone lines were shut off for lack of payment.

Opa-locka remains a relatively poor city with squandered assets, including an airport. It will be up to law-enforcement officials to determine who, if anyone, should face, possibly, criminal charges for this mess. And residents will have to determine if they are finally aggrieved enough to sweep from the commission those who have occupied the dais for too long, and with too little to show for it.

But, as per Mr. Shiver’s initial request, there is a role for the state to play as it negotiates with the city. In the 1990s, the city of Miami was drowning under the weight of a $68 million deficit; Lawton Chiles, governor at the time, appointed an oversight board to oversee the city’s finances for a limited amount of time. The board required city administrators to develop a five-year plan that bolstered reserves, stabilized finances and fostered a long-term recovery.

The Financial Oversight Board wasn’t a government takeover; its members, experienced in business, law and finance, didn’t play politics. Their sole focus was the money.

Of course, the oversight board was created at then-Mayor Joe Carollo’s request. And in his wisdom, Gov. Chiles followed through. It’s safe to assume that Opa-locka is not going to find its way out of its morass on its own — and a Carollo-type request likely isn’t forthcoming from the defensive Ms. Taylor. But Gov. Scott and the state shouldn’t wait to act.