‘Hidden Tax’ Ordinance To Be Eliminated; City Staff Pushes Back

The pendulum of city staff dictating the future of Coral Gables hit a snag when Commissioner Mike Mena at the December 10th commission meeting brought up an ordinance from 1988 regarding the construction of sidewalks when you do an improvement to your home.

The ordinance from 1988 states that if you do improvements of $15,000 or 600sq ft on your property, you must pay to construct a sidewalk. However, if the street does not already have sidewalks, you must sign a covenant that runs with the land to build one once the majority of the street is ready.

It could take decades before the majority of a block updates their homes to trigger this ordinance. In addition, the property owners may not want sidewalks on their street to begin with.

“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t really like that mechanism for addressing sidewalks.” said Mena.

Sidewalks have always been a contentious issue in Coral Gables said Mayor Valdes-Fauli. Property owners specifically look for homes that don’t have sidewalks, while just the opposite is also true.

Aesthetics is what makes The City Beautiful, yet city employees have been at odds with portions of the city that don’t meet their view. A special webpage was created for this topic alone citing sources such as AARP and The Federal Highway Administration.

“Whether or not someone agrees or disagrees with sidewalks. If we’re going to do them, I think the city can and should pay for it.” said Mena.

There is an existing process in place for streets that want sidewalks as part of the Neighborhood Enhancement Program. The City will fully fund sidewalks on collector roads and 50 percent of sidewalk installation costs on local residential streets. To make it even easier for proponents of sidewalks, there was a reduction the voting threshold from two-thirds to just 50 percent in order to construct sidewalks for non-collector roads.

“I kind of view this as a backdoor tax on residents when they may or may not even want it.” added Mena

Assistant Public Works Director Sustainable Public Infrastructure Division, Jessica Keller presented the discovered 1988 ordinance in 2018 during a push to add sidewalks throughout the city. The Commission was caught off-guard and confused as the item was joined in with a transportation board resolution. Then Director of Public Works Ed Santamaria flexed his experience with the commission to save the discovered ordinance from extinction.

In addition to dusting off this old ordinance, staff pushed upon a zero-concurrency policy for adding sidewalks on collector streets (San Amaro, Granada, Riviera, University Dr., Biltmore Drive, etc). Zero-concurrency meaning, no voting from property owners required.

For 36 years, the city says it has never called in a covenant regarding sidewalks. But since the 2018 implementation, commissioners have received feedback from concerned and disgruntled homeowners when doing an addition or improvement that triggers a covenant.

Now Assistant City Manager, Ed Santamaria, pushed back on Mena saying he didn’t want to eliminate the ordinance. Santamaria suggested to increase the threshold to a ‘level 3’ alteration.

City Manager Peter Iglesias said the city sees about 15 ‘level 3’ alterations a year.

“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” asked Mena, as Mayor Valdes-Fauli, Commissioner Pat Keon and Commissioner Fors, Jr. chimed in saying they agreed with Mena.

“My thinking is that we really need to look at this complicated issue and get the direction from you.” said Santamaria.

Mena quickly interrupted saying “Which is why I put it as a discussion item today….”.

“I would get rid of it.” said Keon, adding that there’s a special assessment process for streets that want sidewalks on their street, referring to the Neighborhood Enhancement Program.

“I agree it’s not equitable.” said Vice Mayor Vince Lago in regards to the ordinance adding that he too sees it as a hidden tax.

In a unanimous vote, the commission agreed to have the City Attorney bring back wording to revoke the dated ordinance all together. It will be head on first reading with further discussion at the January 14, 2020 commission meeting. If eliminated all covenants on record would be null and void.

Sources tell Gables Insider that members of the commission are growing frustrated in dealing with certain staff on divisive issues such as sidewalks and bicycle lanes when there is so much to do and accomplish. Commissioners are said to be sending clear signals to the city manager’s office but he has yet to take any action in several departments. Iglesias has been City Manager since September 2018.

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6 thoughts on “‘Hidden Tax’ Ordinance To Be Eliminated; City Staff Pushes Back

  1. Thank you, citizens of Coral Gables, for bringing attention to the arrogant ways of the CG staff. They make decisions based on what THEY want, not what the citizens want. I have noticed that Vince Lago, Jorge Fors, and now Mike Mena, have the guts to put them in their places. They really should fire the ones who are arrogant petty tyrants, with large salaries and even larger pensions. I know the teamsters union who represents them is hard to defy, but it is time.

  2. Then the question remains, what about those home owners that still own a property affected by this “Blackfoot tax” and had to pay for sidewalks while improving their home? Should they be re-imbursed?

  3. Thank you commissioner Mena for standing up to staff on behalf of the Citizens you represent. Well done.

  4. Perhaps the Miami-Dade County ordinance requiring home owners to pay to upgrade the water main to their house can also be repealed. There are many streets that are served by a 4″ water main which is not big enough to service a fire hydrant. When a homeowner increases the size of their house, in many instances, they have to bear the full cost of running a new 8″ water line hundreds of feet and adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of their home. This should more fairly be paid for by the entire street or community, not just one property owner.

  5. Wow! Reading this article about the “Hidden Tax…” I finally feel vindicated! Watching the City Commission Meetings for some time I got the impression that the elected officials legislated, but the staff decided what they really meant and thus either followed what had been decided, changed it to fit their “agenda,” or simply “forgot it.” Since most of the time the elected do not follow up to make sure that their decisions are implemented, the staff, in fact gets their way.
    Case in point, the staff, Jessica Keller, set out to find some ordinance that she could use to push her agenda. She did find it and then proceeded to convince the commission to start implementing it. Did she bring up that no covenant had ever been enforced? Of course not! Someone on the dais would have asked why, and perhaps the pandora’s box that she opened would have backfired! Some people may have seen her move as masterful, she would be able to enforce the ordinance and get her way with the sidewalks! Others, like me, consider it sneaky, and plain dishonest. Thank God Commissioner Mena took the time to listen carefully and asked questions. Well, staff, ie, Ed Santamaria, in Jessica’s absence, did his best to push the issue and even said that he (the Assistant City Manager, not an elected,) did not want the ordinance revoked! I guess he thought he could convince the Commissioners! Well, this time it seems not to have worked. Perhaps it is time for our elected officials to take their positions seriously and do what the voters expect them to do. The staff needs to be reminded that they do NOT legislate, they are there do what the Commission directs them to do, without regard to their personal agendas, or could find themselves looking for other jobs!

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