But who's going to sing 'Moon Over Dade County'? Abolish-Miami camp sees dissolution as answer to city's woes

March 03, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIAMI -- Its budget is a disaster. Its bonds are rated junk. It's endured riots, middle-class flight, sensational crime waves and top-level political corruption -- all of which have dulled its fun-in-the-sun image.

What's a city to do?

Abolish itself, say the leaders of the Coalition for a New Miami.

Sometime in the next few months -- the date hasn't been set -- Miami's voters will go to the polls and decide whether to dissolve their poor city's boundaries and throw themselves onto the mercy of surrounding Dade County, where the average household is richer and taxes are half as high.

Gone, legally, would be a 100-year-old city of 360,000. Wealthy enclaves, as well as neighborhoods beset by poverty, would suddenly throw off their municipal ties and be tossed magically into unincorporated Dade County.

Many Miamians despise the thought: Polls show abolition losing big.

And leaders of the abolish-Miami campaign do, in fact, understand some of their sentiments.

"I know, I know," says Gene Stearns, an organizer of the movement. "Who's going to sing 'Moon Over Dade County'? "

But Stearns and others say reassuringly that Miami would continue to exist as a state of mind, the center of an economically healthy metropolis of palm trees, pastel architecture and romantic, Latin influences.

The city, they note, is really a very small part of what tourists think of when they think of Miami. Miami Beach, with its art deco strip? A separate city. Coral Gables, with its pricey homes and hotels? Incorporated independently in the 1920s.

Dade County would have no say if the residents of Miami voted to abolish their city. Unlike Baltimore, which is independent of Baltimore County, Miami already is part of Dade County.

The people pushing the abolish-Miami campaign say the vote would simply let a struggling city free itself to move on to a new life with lower taxes and Dade County's deeper resources.

"Would you wish to remain in the fourth-poorest city in the country, technically bankrupt?" asks Pan Courtelis, a businessman who is one of the leaders of the Miami abolition movement. "Or would you want to join the big, healthy county, with many services available?"

Familiar predicament

Baltimoreans -- indeed, residents of many older cities -- won't find Miami's predicament strange. Much of it sounds just like home: A third of the city's residents live in poverty. Education levels are lower. Jobs are disappearing. Property values fall while taxes are twice those in the suburbs. (A countywide school district runs all Dade schools, including the city's.)

But many believe the challenges can be met.

Xavier Suarez, a former mayor who is running for that job again, calls the abolition talk ridiculous.

"Miami really is a viable entity," he says. "It has a large tax base. It has all the bayfront properties. It's got plenty of assets.

"It's just had some bad mismanagement."

The city's defenders charge that the abolition campaign is led by wealthy people preaching the joys of metropolitan government -- when they're really just sick of supporting Miami's poor.

"Paying lower taxes -- that's what Gene Stearns is about," says Merrett Stierheim, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and an opponent of the abolition movement.

Meanwhile, Miami's Hispanic majority (about 63 percent of the population) watches suspiciously.

"Cubans are proud that -- it's nothing arrogant -- but, well, most Cubans think we built Miami," says City Commissioner Tomas Regalado, who is host of a Cuban radio talk show. "They think taking away Miami, it's a part of a plan to strip the Cubans in the United States of their power.

"What's at issue here is a historic sense of pride."

And blacks, who make up about a quarter of the population and have no representation on the City Commission, are skeptical as well.

Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE), says black Miamians fear that poor neighborhoods will end up with even fewer services.

"We're headed in a bad direction," he says. "The next struggle we're going to have is not a racial struggle. It's a class struggle."

Beyond corruption

Amid the debate, the people at City Hall are trying to pull Miami out of a deep financial hole. The situation is so dire that Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles declared an emergency in December and took over the city's budget.

The crisis began abruptly last summer when the city manager, finance director and a city commissioner were caught up in an FBI bribery sting.

With City Hall in an uproar, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo appointed Stierheim acting city manager. Stierheim, a former Dade County manager, looked at the books.

What he found went far beyond corruption.

"They swore me in about 3: 30 Friday afternoon," he says. "By Saturday night, I knew the city was in trouble. Before it was over, we found a $68 million shortfall."

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