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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
August 2018

Budget challenges and #MeToo heat up city hall

NPix_MarkSell_8-18o tropical systems threaten Florida as of press time, but North Miami City Hall is weathering its own storms.

The city council may be in recess, but these dog days offer a political sex scandal, a daunting budget, rising garbage and sewer rates, and an accelerated effort in the Arch Creek East Nature Preserve to discourage bulldozers from plowing through native plantings.

First, some good news. If you live in North Miami, your tax rate will probably not go up. On July 10, the council voted to cap it at the current 7.5 mils, or $7.50 for each $1000 of assessed valuation. The council also scheduled budget hearings for September 4 and 17.

Here’s our dip into the news.

The scandal: In mid-July, Miami New Times broke a story of a federal sexual harassment claim against Councilman Philippe Bien-Aime, who’s running for mayor and reported $77,441 in contributions as of July 10.

A political setup? We can’t attest to the merits of the claim. Still, it could change the election landscape. The suit is highly specific, accuses the councilman of multiple come-ons to a married former aide, and doesn’t reflect particularly well on deputy city manager Arthur J. “Duke” Sorey Jr. or city manager Larry Spring. If anything, the contents reveal an undercurrent of a “go along to get along” personnel culture, with whiffs of Tammany Hall, protecting the favored and discouraging whistleblowers. At first glance, it has the earmarks of a case you’d want to settle out of court fast.

It’s also but the latest in a string of nearly a dozen lawsuits or employment actions against the city, mostly stemming in one way or the other from the July 18, 2016, shooting of behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey.

Anniversary: Speaking of that shooting, there’s a worthy podcast about its fallout and what happened to one of the victims. Aftereffect, from WNYC Radio in New York, follows the life of 27-year-old Arnaldo Rios Soto, the autistic man Kinsey was trying to protect.

The podcast is worth a listen for anyone who cares about how we treat our most vulnerable, and what happens after the headlines fade. While North Miami police have instituted training for dealing with people on the autism scale -- now Florida law -- the broadcast is a powerful reminder that the vulnerable deserve our full attention.

Needs and wants: This is our third month on this subject, but it’s safe to say that the city faces crushing needs, with groaning infrastructure and bloated payrolls and pensions. North Miami is not alone here, but its emergency reserves are perilously low.

Stormwater capital needs were estimated at $57.9 million, from a 2012 master plan, for remediation in the Arch Creek and Biscayne Canal basins. The city manager has spoken of full implementation in 2040. Can we afford to wait that long? All municipalities in this area must prepare for buyback of the growing number of properties that will be unlivable because of repeated flooding.

If that seems overwhelming, one can start with 11 unfunded priority projects, identified last year by the city’s Floodplain Management Committee, totaling roughly $10 million. The largest project, at more than $6 million, would line sewer pipes from the inside to prevent leakage into the environment. Another would require $750,000 to buy three flood-prone repetitive-loss properties, surely among the first of many. This will require county, state, or federal help. The city can’t afford to go it alone. The council voted July 10 to pay nearly $2 million to replace two wastewater pump stations. Expect more of this.

Affordable housing is another necessary conversation. Landlords have started to raise rents to unconscionable levels in some of the less inviting apartment buildings along NE 6th Avenue. At one council meeting, a group of residents said they were facing eviction because the landlord at their building on 138th Street was raising their rents from $1000 to $1600. This in a house-poor city in one of the more house-poor counties in the United States. Here, too, attention must be paid.

Your rates are going up: There’s no way around this. Stormwater and garbage rates haven’t changed in the past five years and are running into big deficits. The stormwater rate is now $74.28, unchanged since 2014. The state average is $93. The city is proposing $92.28 in 2019.

Garbage is trickier. Here, too, the rate is artificially low, at $252.48 a year, unchanged since 2013. The city is recommending raising it to $420.

The city has contracted out these services to Waste Pro since 2012, when the council under Mayor Andre Pierre voted to give the trash hauler a no-bid private contract. Residents, businesses, and council members have since grumbled about the service. Both Pierre and former Councilwoman Marie Steril received bundled checks from Waste Pro principals totaling more than $5500. In north Florida, the Tallahassee Democrat recently reported that Waste Pro executives have been called before a federal grand jury in a probe of corruption in the capital city’s government.

When renewal time came this year, North Miami approached eight companies and met with four firms: Waste Pro, Waste Management, Great Waste, and World Waste Recycling. Only Waste Pro came back, proposing a $25 million contract over seven years with three extensions.

Smith Joseph was incredulous July 10, and started shouting from the dais. “We are so bad as a municipality that no company wants to conduct business with us?” he asked. “This is insulting! This is insulting for you guys to even present this to us. Eight companies come here. The City on the Move. The City of North Miami. The fifth-largest city. They don’t want to conduct business with us? We are that bad? We are that crooked?”

The city talked about taking back trash collection, but city officials estimate that this would cost $20 million for the equipment, plus $7 million a year, rather than the $6 million a year now.

This story isn’t over. The contract expires in May, right at election time. Barring further progress, the city faces a sticky time trying to squeeze out of its Waste Pro embrace.

FIU vs. North Miami: While this front seems quiet after FIU’s victorious legislative effort to get the upper hand in running a four-lane road through the city’s Arch Creek East Nature Preserve (see “Face-off: North Miami vs. FIU,” July 2018), the Urban Paradise Guild’s Sam Van Leer has stepped up his native plantings from one morning a week to at least three, replacing Australian pines with native species in the withering heat. So enjoy August, watch those tropics, wear sunblock and floppy hats, and stay hydrated!

 

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