Anti-city drive is gathering steam in Miami Residents are disgusted by corruption, deficit

November 10, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI -- Just last summer, this city turned 100, a cause for celebration, self-congratulation and civic pride. But by this Election Day, the mood had turned so somber that at some polling places voters signed petitions to abolish their city.

"You would think that for the taxes we're paying we'd get better services," said Louis Wechsler, a homeowners association president in the Coconut Grove section who supports the movement to cede Miami's rule to Dade County government. "But there is so much graft and corruption we're not getting those services."

The anti-city drive is just starting, but it underscores a striking reversal of fortune for a city that has billed itself as the "gateway to the Americas" with its bustling international commerce and cosmopolitan flavor.

Along with federal investigations of fraud and corruption at the highest levels of municipal government, mismanagement of the city's finances has left residents disgusted and seething.

Stunned by the disclosure in August of a $68 million deficit in a city budget of $275 million, Miami residents now face the prospect of paying for the shortfall with higher fees for a range of services, from garbage collection to marina use.

Financial analysts say the fiscal problems pose a formidable challenge for the city of about 350,000 but can be fixed with proper belt-tightening and supervision.

The budget disarray and accompanying political scandal, however, have exposed racial and philosophical divisions within Miami that may take longer to mend.

Some critics of federal investigators have used such terms as "lynching" to characterize the investigation of city officials, most of whom are black or Hispanic.

While those behind the anti-city drive portray it as an effort to lower taxes, skeptics see it reflecting doubts among whites about the competence of a city government run primarily by ethnic and foreign-born minorities.

"This has a lot to do with the resentment and disdain that some people feel against Cuban-Americans," said Tomas Regalado, a member of Miami's City Commission. "They can't stand the power we have acquired. They can't fight us economically, so they have to go after us politically."

The fiscal troubles can be traced largely to miscalculations about revenue and expenses, loose financial controls and commingling funds.

More seriously, however, the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether municipal bond proceeds were used to disguise budget deficits by paying for operating expenses rather than for the stated purposes of meeting pension obligations and acquiring a building.

The commission is seeking to determine whether Miami officials misled bond buyers by failing to accurately disclose the city's financial condition in two bond offerings last year.

But Miami's fiscal troubles are compounded by a widening corruption scandal being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although the tales of graft and shakedowns have no apparent connection to the budget deficit, some of the principals are the same.

They are Cesar Odio, Miami's Cuban-born city manager since 1985; the assistant city manager, Manohar Surana, a native of India; and a black city commissioner, Miller Dawkins.

All resigned in August and September to face federal corruption charges that include bribery, embezzlement and witness tampering.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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