|It Takes a (Bigger) Village|
|Written by John Ise, BT Contributor|
Biscayne Park, El Portal, and Miami Shores need to become one
The Village of Biscayne Park is perhaps the most pleasant, tranquil community in Miami-Dade County. Narrow streets, separated by wide medians, and a huge tree canopy create a lushly tropical, almost rustic, environment. Taking a walk in the tiny, exclusively residential Village, one almost feels transported back to old Florida.
Originally plotted on 348 acres in 1933 as a citrus farming community, folklore has it that new residents were welcomed to the Village with an official greeting and a complimentary strawberry shortcake.
In addition to Old World charm, the Village also has the second-highest property tax rate in Miami Dade, or $9.7 for every $1000 of assessed property value (only the high-drama, corruption-ridden City of Opa-locka has a higher millage of 10). In spite of sky-high taxes, the Village offers few municipal services beyond police and modest public works, and is perpetually cash-strapped. With a budget of $2.7 million, the Village can afford little beyond the bare-bone basics, and no more strawberry shortcakes.
Last June, Biscayne Park, recognizing this reality, sought to narrowly expand its boundaries eastward through unincorporated Dade to Biscayne Boulevard to capture a few commercial office complexes and their tax revenue. The Miami-Dade County Commission, bolstered by a vocal contingent of residents from the unincorporated strip the Village would have to annex, casually quashed the proposal.
Yet the budget shackles remain. Former Commissioner Fred Jonas waved the red flag on his blog: “Our (perpetual) problem is money. We live as fakes, because we try to pretend we don’t have our problem…we stick our heads in the sand.”
He points to the virtual impossibility for the Village to ever undertake significant capital improvements or upgrades. A proposed Village-wide drainage system could run in the neighborhood of $12 million, four times the entire Village budget. Jonas concludes, “No way. Not around here.”
Biscayne Park should, however, continue to pursue annexation -- but move southwestward toward Barry University. The Village should seek annexation of the unincorporated wedge, right up to the northern border of Miami Shores...and continue. Like General Sherman’s bold March to the Sea, the Village needs to absorb (by force if necessary) neighboring Miami Shores and El Portal. Biscayne Park must achieve its Manifest Destiny of a unified Village from Biscayne Canal to Little River Canal.
Now, before readers contact the BT editor demanding that I undergo a mental health exam or sobriety test, consider the serious point underlying that hyperbole. Biscayne Park and El Portal (with a $2.1 million budget from an 8.3 ad valorem rate) are tiny, almost minute residential communities that will forever struggle to generate the tax revenue to power a modern municipality. However, if there were a magical way to merge the three Villages into a single Village, then there’s a case to be made that a majority of residents of all three Villages would benefit.
El Portal and Biscayne Park are roughly the same size -- a half square mile -- with 2300 and 3100 residents, respectively. Miami Shores, the bigger brother to its southern and northern neighbors, is about 3.7 square miles with 10,500 residents. As for the unincorporated wedge between NE 6th Avenue and NE 2nd Avenue, let’s guesstimate it holds a population of 2000. So based only on geography and population, the new expanded village of, let’s call it “El Biscayne Shores,” would be around five square miles large, comprising about 18,000 residents.
Rather than three separate police departments, three separate public works departments, and three building and code departments (and I’m not even counting the county’s municipal departments), El Biscayne Shores would house these municipal functions singularly. Triplication of bureaucracies would become a thing of the past, replaced by a singular, unified government.
Instead of 15 elected officials for an area under five square miles, we’d have five -- and to ensure that the larger Miami Shores doesn’t neglect the tinier Biscayne Park and El Portal areas, we move from Village-wide elections to districts, with the mayor being the sole at-large politico. The expanded boundaries and hyper-active voting block of El Biscayne Shores would result in greater clout with the county and beyond.
For the residents of the former Villages of El Portal and Biscayne Park, taxes would likely be reduced and a whole cadre of services and amenities would open up. Take recreational programming of Biscayne Park, where the Village website touts a tai chi class, a Lego club, a yoga class…and that’s it. El Portal has nothing listed for recreational programming. Meanwhile, Miami Shores Recreation has about 70 recreation program offerings, an aquatic center, a tennis center, a library, an A-rated charter school, and soon a dog park.
For the residents of Miami Shores, the addition of 7500 taxpayers could provide additional services or offer an avenue for pushing the 7.9 millage downward. Clearly the addition of territory and residents would require a bit more of a lift on the part of Miami Shores than the other areas, as most likely it would be the Shores’s departments that would be built out to accommodate for the additions. There would have to be a special arrangement for the unincorporated residents who would likely see their 1.9 millage rate triple.
I can anticipate the host of opposing arguments: that the Villages are distinct and have existed as is for decades. But truth be told, the three villages as more alike than different. Yes, El Portal is more racially and ethnically diverse than Miami Shores, and Biscayne Park is quirkier than most (I’ve heard this explanation: Miami Shores hides its nuts -- i.e., its nuttier residents -- while Biscayne Park proudly puts theirs in the front yard). But the residents of all three Villages are upwardly mobile, progressive minded, and quite serious about quality-of-life issues.
Another concern is that the combined Village would mean more bureaucracy and inefficiency. A bigger government would certainly mean a greater distance between the bureaucracies and the residents. But that’s where the hyper-activism that is distilled in the DNA of the residents of the three Villages would serve as a counterweight for accountability and efficiency.
And the bigger truth is that in a very smallish area, we have too many jurisdictions, too many different rules, and we’re spending more than we should for what we get.
So let’s recap: El Biscayne Shores has the potential to benefit most with lower taxes, more services, more amenities, more uniformity, more political power, more professionalism, and more opportunities. When seen from this vantage point, the “why” of the pie-in-the-sky dream of El Biscayne Shores becomes “why not?”
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
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