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Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
August 2019

Aventura’s claim to the county pie gets a raspberry

TPix_JayBeskin_8-19he founders of the United States were very much enamored of the idea of layered government. They loved to divide jurisdictions into patchwork swatches of all sizes, with plenty of overlap. The theory was that government functions best the closer its decisions are made to those citizens who are affected.

But the predictable byproduct of all this compartmentalization is compartments spilling over into each other.

Having a federal government and a state government and a municipal government and a county government and a neighborhood school board can be clunky and unwieldy, even when all those players are in agreement.

When they are in conflict, all sorts of ostensibly creative chaos ensues, forcing us to seek input of the court system. But then again, there are federal courts and state courts and municipal courts and county courts, so the escape hatch from the frying pan often leads smack dab right into the fire.

At least here in Florida, we have been spared the most pernicious of all jurisdictional overlaps, because we have no state or local income taxes. In other states, people have three strata of government all taxing the same income. Talk about overlap! But even in our little “tax shelter,” the state butts heads with the cities and counties over issues, and the cities and counties do the same with each other.

Of course, we here in the City of Excellence are above all such petty pettifoggery. We are self-confident, self-sufficient, and self-supporting. Let the poorer constituencies wrangle over a few stray dollars of federal or state funds. We are the City of Excellence. Right? Right!

Until now, that is.

With two recusals (due to their school board affiliations), Aventura’s city commissioners voted unanimously to sue Miami-Dade County for the $800,000 they feel they are owed for Aventura’s city-sponsored charter schools. This lawsuit will not proceed as if it were going through a normal courtroom litigation -- there is a conflict resolution procedure that is mandated by state law. Still, it is fair to say that the city is suing the county for the cash.

The pool of money from which Aventura craves the chunk is $211 million raised by a new property tax that was approved by voters for the purpose of increasing teacher salaries. The county argues that the intent of this initiative was to help poorer schools and, as such, should be distributed solely to regular public schools, not charter schools and city-sponsored operations.

Aventura will argue that its schools are open to the public, accredited by the public school system, and that, as such, are legitimate recipients of the tax money, whether or not they demonstrate a special need.

If we view this from an abstract legal perspective, focusing on the letter of the law, Aventura may well have a case. Putting aside the question of who has money and how much money they have, there is a principle in play relating to all public schooling. The idea of government providing education, no less than providing a program like Medicare, has to be structured around the notion that every citizen is entitled to that education equally.

The minute we start saying we give more to certain schools than others, we are creating a type of private school, where one group is favored owing to factors that are not related to education.

Furthermore, counties should not be overriding cities operating their own budgets and fulfilling municipal responsibilities within the county. This should be an ironclad principle of good governance. If anything, the county should celebrate the fact that the city is adding money of its own into the pool, rather than saying in essence: “Well, if you are rich enough to add money, you are rich enough for us to subtract money.” Thus, it is poor practice and poorer policy for Miami-Dade County to tell Aventura citizens, county residents all, that they are not entitled to a piece of the pie.

So if the county asks our advice, we would tell them that the right thing is to offer Aventura its share. Yet I still maintain to you that were I still sitting on the Aventura City Commission, I would cast my vote against instigating this claim against the county. That is to say, if the city asks our advice, we would tell them that the right thing is for Aventura to relinquish its share.

These two views are not contradictory. Let me try to offer an analogy. Not a clinically precise one, perhaps, but it should make my point.

A significant portion of my law practice is in wills and estates. If a rich man comes to me and asks me if he should leave his money to his three poor children and cut the wealthy one out of the will, I immediately raise the alarm. Under no circumstances would I advise such a choice. There is no surer guarantee of conflict within the family, with the well-to-do sibling inevitably feeling slighted, even if he really will not miss the sum of money one bit. Human nature dictates that no one wants to have his or her rights stripped away because some outside party -- even a loving parent -- decided he or she should practice generosity or altruism.

However, when a rich beneficiary of a share-and-share-alike will approaches me for advice whether he or she should be a sport and cede his bequest back into the pot for the poor siblings, I would definitely encourage that behavior. If you do not need the money, why grab it just for the symbolic value? Be the bigger person and let the ones in need receive funds, the presence of which makes a big difference in their lives and the absence of which makes very little difference in yours.

So I cannot endorse the county for its high-handed behavior, even though I would prefer to see the money in the county public schools rather than in the city charter schools. And I cannot endorse the city for its high-hatted behavior, even though I don’t like to see the county push the city around.

The world in which I would like to live, my ideal environment, my personal utopia, would be one in which the county would invite the city in to discuss the dispensation of the funding and the city would voluntarily announce that -- although this should not be taken as establishing a precedent -- the City of Excellence graciously forfeits its share in favor of needier districts around the county -- our county!

 

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