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Jul 18th
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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
July 2019

Is North Miami ready for a 12-step program? Don’t bet on it...

QPix_MarkSell_7-19uick, take that punch bowl away. Please. It’s spiked with victory elixir and needs to go to toxicology, ASAP.

With the May 14 election and June 4 runoff behind us, some City of North Miami council victors showed acute symptoms of swollen heads and entitlement, even as the city’s bottom line looks redder than a bloodshot eye, at $8 million in the hole and counting.

Exhibits A, B, and C: three big induction parties. First was the swearing-in at North Miami Senior High on May 28, with 800-plus attendees. It was followed by a “People’s Banquet” at the Joe Celestin Center later that evening, largely for District 4’s Alix Desulme. Then there was a June 11 special outdoor tent celebration with about 200 people in attendance and a band for District 3’s Mary Estimé Irvin, ringed by police cars and pretty much the whole police department’s command staff.

(Police staffing is down about 37 officers, according to city manager Larry Spring’s estimate, which means the city is paying lots of overtime and getting less picky about hires.)

These three parties together cost well north of $20,000, and much more when you factor in overtime and reallocation of staff.

While North Miami Beach may not be utopia (see Myron Rosner, Frantz Pierre, et al.), at least it holds a simple swearing-in at its post-election council meeting with a nice reception afterward.

Why not North Miami?

“Egos of city council members,” said a victorious (and term-limited) District 1 Councilman Scott Galvin at a June 19 town hall budget meeting he had called at the Gwen Margolis Center, citing “too much ring kissing in city hall” and spending “like drunken sailors.”

Walking into the meeting and noting the thin attendance of 28 usual suspects -- activists, homeowner board members, aspiring candidates, gadflies -- Galvin said, “This is not as big a deal as you might think.”

Just 19 percent of the electorate voted in the May election and 13 percent in the District 3 runoff, where Estimé Irvin’s 52-47 victory over former city clerk Michael Etienne was made possible by a lopsided and statistically improbable 62-37 win in the mail-in ballots, which comprised a third of the total vote.

This mail-in business is going around, by the way. At least two “Anglo” candidates in North Miami Beach in November had the same suspect mail-order pattern, but they lost.

Logic-free comments from the city council dais June 11 do not bode well.  “When we’re talking about events,” said newly elected Mayor Philippe Bien-Aime, “events have nothing to do with fiscal responsibility and taking care of the budget.”

Try making sense of that.

When your city’s this much in the hole, you’d think it’s time for detox, rehab, mea culpas, the 12 Steps, come to Jesus, Yahweh, Buddha, whatever. If nobody’s taking ownership, maybe it’s time for an advisory group, such as an independent parenting panel, or a new accounting firm with no dogs in the fight for a second opinion. Residents can get their shot at the budget workshop set for 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 10.

A visit to the city’s transparency portal is eye-popping, showing roughly $76 million in revenues and $99 million in expenses as of June. That’s a $23 million deficit. City manager Spring cautions that such a figure can be distorted by pension payments, infrastructure repairs, and much else, adding that the city actually has $60 million in cash assets, though much of that is restricted.

“Paris is not burning today,” Spring says.

Even fiscally hawkish Galvin warns about getting too worked up over the transparency portal: “We invited Dracula into our house and opened the door and said, come on in.”

Yet any way you look at it, the picture is discomfiting. Within three to five years, Solé Mia’s money stands to make North Miami much richer, but the city must up its game first to elevate its brand and reputation to attract other investors to address innovative answers to, say, affordable housing.

For a defense of current practices, we offer Dr. Desulme (Ed.D.) at the June 11 council meeting, starting around minute 58:

“Do understand we live in a diverse city. There’s different cultures, different things, and different backgrounds,” he says. “Yes, maybe another district may not like parties. That’s fine. I’m all for it if they don’t want to have it. But if I’m having events or activities, my folks are taxpayers also. I understand that. They may not pay as much taxes as others may suggest, but no one, and I mean no one, constituent or anyone, [is] gonna tell me that I cannot do this particular thing in my district when it comes to serving my residents.... We all do outreach differently. No one can tell me how to do social service.”

My folks. My district. My residents. Such is the magic of victory elixir.

Votersopinion.com blogger Stephanie Kienzle led her scathing June 13 column with the on-point headline: “What planet do these people live on?” and aptly summarized the problem as “five ordinary people who act like they’re royalty.”

Some random ideas to start the detox:

• Eliminate the $77,000 in discretionary funds for individual council members, and put all funding before the city council.

• Require council approval on expenses over $5000, not $25,000.

• Kill the $20,000 discretionary tree fund each council member gets (what do they know about trees?) and put it under parks and recreation.

• Cut back on the self-promotional district food giveaways. Maybe some of that money could upgrade the North Miami Public library’s sluggish after-school Internet and help people learn.

Want to see entitlement run amok? Former Mayor Smith Joseph’s discretionary fund provides one gobsmacking example after another. Here are just a few:

• $20,000 to a party planner for the “Mayor’s Haitian Heritage Month Kick-Off” (on a $7000 budget).

• $1500 to the Full Gospel Ministries.

• $1000 to Notre Dame d’Haiti (we like churches, but why, pray tell, must city taxpayers contribute to them?).

We can go on, but in the end, Joseph left the fund $120,000 in the red over two and a half years!

Or take the $620,000 the city council, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, awarded last June over two years to Dr. Rudy Moise -- at Mayor Joseph’s behest -- to expand his medical clinic (see “Friends With Money,” July 2018). And presto! The city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report reported a $300,000 deficit in the CRA budget.

Add it up, and you’re talking real money. We want elected officials to succeed, but only if they dial up the humility and take ownership. Start with that punchbowl.

 

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