Baños is the Editor of Gables Insider
In an unexpected turn of events, the Commission Meeting held on September 26, 2023, managed to defy expectations that it would degenerate into a cauldron of contentious debates and lackluster outcomes. While moments of tension and occasional grandstanding punctuated the proceedings, the meeting ultimately transformed into a rather mundane session of ratifying routine government actions, interspersed with notable achievements by the emerging citizen activist faction within the Commission.
This marked the Commission’s second budget hearing, representing the final annual adjustment to the fiscal plan spanning from October 1, 2023, to September 30, 2024. While the budget will inevitably undergo further changes throughout the year, this moment presented a critical opportunity for the Commission to shape policies that would dictate the city’s priorities in the upcoming years and set the tone for capital improvement plans.
The stakes were high, as funding for several projects held deep significance for various Commission members and the residents of Coral Gables. The situation seemed like a zero-sum game, with resources allocated for some projects vying against vital historic restorations. However, with facts and expectations laid bare, wise minds found room for compromise. The most pressing issues included financing for the restoration of Phillips Park, which competed with funding for City Hall window replacements and renovations to the iconic Alhambra Water Tower.
While it’s tempting to scrutinize past Commissions for the neglect of City Hall’s current state and question the prioritization of other projects, such retrospection proves unproductive. The latest improvement to City Hall over the past two fiscal years was the replacement of the roof, albeit at a significant cost of nearly $700,000. However, this nearly century-old Mediterranean Revival-style building suffers from South Florida’s natural weathering, evident in peeling frescoes, cracked structures, and dilapidated windows and doors. These issues have led to substantial water leaks and humidity problems, affecting the health of employees and public officials.
Next in line was the Coral Gables Alhambra Water Tower, a non-functional structure but an iconic piece of Coral Gables’ history. Although never intended to last as long as it has, with its centennial approaching, the Alhambra Water Tower remains an unmistakable symbol of the City Beautiful. Renovations occurred from 1993 to 1998, with subsequent maintenance and improvements. Now, it requires more extensive restoration to secure its structural integrity and ensure another century of existence.
Lastly, Phillips Park, long neglected by the city, was set to undergo a transformation into a versatile sports and activity facility. The city’s substantial investment in new recreational facilities and walkable structures aimed to benefit the residents of the densely populated North Gables community.
Mayor Lago and Vice Mayor Anderson, perhaps as a response to Commissioner Menendez’s previous votes in September, advocated for deferring and reallocating funds away from Phillips Park to prioritize City Hall and the Water Tower. However, timing became a pivotal factor, as management explained that procedural hurdles for Phillips Park’s execution would likely push the project to the end of the fiscal year or the beginning of the next. This allowed for a reshuffling of priorities and Commissioner Menendez’s compromise to delay funding for Phillips Park improvements, thus freeing resources for City Hall and the Alhambra Water Tower in the new fiscal year. In addition, the Commission agreed to allow the Historic Preservation Board further oversight over the improvements of the windows at City Hall. This budget resolution, as amended by Commissioner Menendez, passed with unanimous support by the Commission.
However, the entire debate may become theoretical, as Commissioner Fernandez proposed restructuring the 25% reserve fund to free approximately $10,000,000. This would prevent further deterioration of these projects and others in dire need of attention. The proposal’s details remain a work in progress, which will be outlined in future articles, but its mere mention ignited one of the day’s three contentious moments. Mayor Lago attempted to hinder any proposal by suggesting a resolution requiring a 4/5 majority vote to modify the established 25% reserve structure. The debate was largely civil, with Vice Mayor Anderson expressing concerns about potential disasters necessitating reserve use, while Commissioner Castro, participating via teleconference due to illness, highlighted the needed restoration that additional funding could cover, while not affecting the total level of reserves, ultimately leading to the Mayor’s resolution failing in the new 3/2 vote dynamic.
The final two debates, if they could even be termed as such, revolved around Commission salary increases and the annexation of Little Gables and Ponce Davis/High Pines neighborhoods. Mayor Lago and Commissioner Fernandez engaged in some grandstanding, attempting to outmaneuver each other regarding annexation prospects. The exchanges were more posturing than substantive discussion, a healthy airing of differences, though peppered with unproven accusations and unnecessary affidavits outlining each camp’s beliefs. Ultimately, the consensus appeared to be letting voters decide, with the County enclaves getting the first opportunity.
The last point of contention centered on Commission salary increases, a topic previously outlined by this publication. Vice Mayor Anderson allowed for a procedural escape by presenting the issue as a standalone item on the agenda. The Mayor and Vice Mayor’s main complaint centered on transparency, as the item had been outlined within the budget resolution during the September 13, 2023 meeting but hadn’t been debated independently before its first reading. Anderson’s resolution, while not entirely altruistic as she opposed the move, provided Commissioners with the opportunity to clarify their positions and amend the budget to remove the increases. Mayor Lago emphasized the optics of the matter, but opponents pointed out that the very debate he sought was underway through the resolution’s discussion. Ultimately, the eye-catching 53% salary increase was not seen as abusive by 3 Commissioners, given the commitment of time and effort by its members. Vice Mayor Anderson, taking a more moderate approach, left her salary increase decision to her accountant but expressed her opposition via a minority vote to nix the increase, once again resulting in a typical 3/2 vote.
A Fernandez proposal to allow seniors to receive a city voucher of $100.00 passed with unanimous support.
The budget hearing, scheduled for 5:01 PM and the culmination of months of work and debate, concluded with minimal fanfare and few changes, except for Commissioner Menendez’s decision to reallocate funds from his proposed Phillips Park project to support City Hall and the Alhambra Water Tower. The Commission issued a now usual 3/2 vote, with the Mayor and Vice Mayor briefly registering their opposition due to the salary increases, wrapping up the meeting in less than 10 minutes. Overall, residents received value for their money, and the Commission demonstrated its ability to compromise and conduct the people’s business professionally, despite their differences.