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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
June 2017

Miami Shores bond fight brought out the worst in people

TShores_1he April 18 defeat of the $20 million bond issue for a new Miami Shores community center was no surprise, but the 73-27 percent margin amazed even the measure’s opponents.

So what happened? Why was the defeat so dramatic? What are the lessons learned? And what happened to the civilities of community engagement?

Nearly everyone contacted by the BT, including bond opponents, agrees that the 1972-vintage C. Lawton McCall Community Center at 6917 Park Dr. is inadequate. Almost all agree that the issue will return in a few years. Yet they also say this project was just too big for a village of just under 11,000 residents and 3650 households.

Add to that the high turnover in properties and higher property assessments, the lack of an organized “yes” effort amid passionate opposition, virulent social media that coarsened the level of discourse, and perceived traffic impacts -- and you’ve got a whopping defeat.

While the community center serves mostly village residents, it attracts about 27 percent of its users from Biscayne Park, El Portal, North Bay Village, Surfside, Miami Beach, and nearby unincorporated areas. Villagers get first dibs; nonresidents pay higher fees.

The 33 percent voter turnout was as strong as any in memory. Three council seats were up, but the bond was the draw. The top two vote-getters -- Mac Glinn and Scott Brady, now mayor and vice mayor, respectively -- supported the bond issue, as did sitting council members Steve Zelkowitz and Alice Burch.

“We went forth the best way we knew how,” says Burch, “and sought the best professional advice we could to address a community need.”

Shores_2Yet all six voting precincts reported decisive defeats. In two, the margin was at least 4-to-1. The best “yes” showing was 37 percent in Precinct 157, among the single-family homes east of Biscayne Boulevard and NE 10th Avenue.

Interim recreation director Angela Dorney has worked for the center 23 years. “When I first came here, the population was mostly seniors,” she says. “It has changed to a younger group, with the three- to seven-year-olds the biggest up-and-coming group. We have more well-rounded programs -- gymnastics, Chinese, tae kwon do, Irish dancing.” The after-care program, strictly for village residents, has a three-year waiting list.

In theory, this should be a good time for a bond issue. Interest rates are low. Average Shores household income is roughly $85,000, double the county’s as a whole. The tax rate of $7.90 per $1000 assessed valuation is higher than North Miami’s, but lower than Biscayne Park’s ($9.70) or El Portal’s ($8.30). Commercial tenants are filling vacant spaces downtown, and sewer hookups along NE 2nd Avenue should come online this month.

Residential property values are up, too, with a median home market value of just under $500,000, and many much higher. Miami Shores has been a hot market, with ten percent turnover every two years.

The bond issue’s estimated costs were $285 a year on an “average” assessed taxable property valuation of $229,000. But these days, it’s almost impossible to find a house in Miami Shores for less than $300,000, and many have sold for $1 million or better. New sales mean fat new property assessments; a million-dollar assessment brings the bond issue bill well north of $1000 a year. Some newer buyers got sticker shock.

Talk of replacing the community center goes back nearly a decade, but the real effort began in December 2014, when the village retained the national consulting firm Ballard King & Associates, which met throughout 2015 to oversee focus groups and meet with stakeholders.

Consultants and village officials sought input from nearby communities, such as Surfside and Key Biscayne, which had built community centers. Their consensus? Their new centers should have been built larger.

Ballard King published its conceptual plan in January 2016, followed by a more detailed report in July. The final report recommended more than doubling the size of the center, to 64,000 square feet, concluding that it would be just as expensive, if not more so, to build a new center than to remodel the existing one.

Skanska Construction, for whom Councilman-turned-Mayor Mac Glinn works as an executive, gave a capital cost estimate at $18 million. This past January the council placed a bond issue of up to $20 million on the ballot, and the campaign was on.

Steve Shulman, a longtime resident and a leader of the campaign to kill the bond, announced a meeting at Miami Shores Country Club in March; more than 70 people showed up. “The response was overwhelming,” he says. “I went to the restroom, and when I got back, $500 was in my hat. Within a few weeks, we had nearly $3000 for the website and the campaign. One guy who had bought a house on Grand Concourse paid for the ‘No’ signs.”

Those signs appeared in front of houses throughout the Shores.

Sylvia Peraza, another opponent of the measure, says she thinks the council wasn’t frank enough: “What I believe went wrong was they were not truthful and forthcoming on greater details of it. In my opinion, the plan was horrendously large, and the village was not forthcoming on the operating expense.”

While conceptual drawings showed a large center -- critics called it the Taj Mahal -- a formal architectural design could have run $1.5 million, which was not budgeted.

Next came the anti-bond social media campaign on Twitter, Facebook, and Nextdoor, the neighborhood chat site. Opponents flooded the comment sections, and civil discourse sank to new lows amid insults and accusations. Someone posted a fake site disguised as village manager Tom Benton’s.

For 30 years the village has weathered controversies over barricades, guard gates, and other bond issues. This time things got ugly.

Ballard King consultants did their job the traditional way, but it’s now clear that many people rely on social media for information, and say the $20 million bond issue took them by surprise.

Village council members say they’re uneasy about even commenting outside of official meetings, for fear of getting enmeshed in controversies that are then amplified on social media or through bloggers.

Following the vote, resident John Farina urged council members at a May 16 meeting to increase their presence on Facebook and Nextdoor, but village clerk Barbara Estep urged caution, citing restrictions of the Sunshine Law.

Social media is tricky. It’s easy to spread rumors, set up fake news, post conspiracy theories, and make unsubstantiated accusations anonymously.

Even if the $20 million bond issue was dead on arrival months ago, as some claim, future efforts to push bond measures are likely to employ a component for social media and constant e-mail or text connections.

 

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