Homestead Council held a marathon meeting Wednesday July 22 to deal with deferred land use issues, proposed charter review questions, and a potential massive damage claim against City property policy.
The six and a half hour session revealed hints of the depth of Homestead’s budget problems.
Council adopted its consent agenda including a preliminary tax millage of 10% per $1000 of assessed property value - the state-limited maximum. Current millage rate is 6.2055% (including the existing library tax) for annual ad valorem taxes.
A debt reduction millage of .4485% is also imposed for voter-approved capital projects.
Millage rates must be chosen by August 4 in order for County tax notices (TRIM) to be printed for property owners. Council anticipated final budget expense numbers by September to adjust the necessary millage rate at a final budget hearing on September 22. The City’s fiscal year begins on October 1.
During later Council discussion, Mayor Steve Losner said, “I learned this week that over the last ten years Council spent $30 million in City reserves to avoid increases so they could campaign on not raising taxes. Now, after COVID, we’re left holding the bag. If you think we’re looking for coins in the couch cushions, yes we are.”
On the agenda, staff proposed tying City water, sewer, and trash collection rates to an annual adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Last year, Council approved the first increases in these rates since 2008. Council approved the CPI issue unanimously. The next adjustment to these rates is to be done by October 1st.
The meeting next considered Copart of Connecticut’s application for a vehicle storage lot of 21,000 inoperable vehicles and equipment on acreage in the Homestead Park of Commerce. The issue was deferred from the February 21, 2020 Council meeting.
About 98 acres of the proposed site are within the Homestead Air Reserve Base accident potential zone. Homestead limits uses in this zone and prohibits residences so Park of Commerce land has had few offers.
Both the Planning and Zoning Board and the City’s Development Office recommended denying the application.
The issue was on first reading meaning it must come back to Council for a final vote. Council’s discussion therefore included additional requests to add to the applicant’s declaration of restrictions. Councilmembers also had questions about a seventeen acre park Copart proposed to build and gift to the City.
Attorney Tracey Slavens advocated for Copart with a remarkably thorough online presentation including the virtual presence of the eight Homestead residents of Copart’s seventeen area employees.
The company hired two seasoned experts - Andy Dolkart an economic analyst and Henry Iler an urban planner. Dolkart said the site requires a $50 million investment to be usable including extensive wetland site remediation. Iler found the site plan met all City standards with no negative visual impact, noise or dust due to a surrounding wall.
The City property tax revenue from the project was estimated in February to be $270,000 annually. Mayor Losner sought to make the property closing a condition of approval. Councilmembers Patricia Fairclough-Staggers and Erica Avila agreed.
Attorney Slavens said the company was eager to close this year and barring any appeals hoped to be on the tax rolls in 2021. The City Attorney indicated mandating a private real estate closing appeared a legally questionable requirement.
Councilmember Fairclough-Staggers asked about Copart’s park offer. “The City is strapped,” she said. “We’re already facing deficits and there are some items I want to bring forward that cost. I’m not sure the City can afford the cost of park maintenance.”
Attorney Slavens said one option was to leave the park area privately owned but with public access. The company allocated $750,000 to build the park but found cost estimate to be $500,000, leaving sufficient money to cover annual $15,000 maintenance costs.
Mayor Losner again raised the project’s limited job creation, the purpose of the Park of Commerce. Attorney Slavens asserted there was direct employment as well as important indirect jobs for appraisers, insurers, and the like especially after a catastrophe.
The Mayor worried about the impact on neighboring Contender Boats with its 265 jobs. “This community was ecstatic three weeks ago when Amazon announced 350 new jobs,” he said. “Tonight we’re foreclosing the same number from every coming to that site. If we’re not getting jobs, it’s my job to exact as many concessions as I can.”
Council heard extensive public comment, pro and con. Councilmember Larry Roth then made the motion to approve the application without additional requirements. Council’s final vote was five to two, Roth, Bailey, Avila, Shelley and Fairclough-Staggers voting yes; Losner and Fletcher voting no.
Council unanimously approved three other delayed land use decisions; approval of an IHOP restaurant next to the 7-11 on US1, a warehouse for seasonal holiday decoration storage in the southwest neighborhood, and a single family in-fill dwelling in a multiple apartment zone at 915 NE Third Avenue.
The meeting agenda included charter review committee recommendations from a July 16 special call meeting. City Attorney Matthew Pearl drafted notes for improved language needing decision on several of five surviving ballot questions.
Councilmember Roth raised the issue of delaying votes on these questions for a local election in 2021. He moved to defer consideration to a subsequent meeting, beyond the November 2020 ballot deadline.
The motion passed four to three, Roth, Shelley, Avila, and Fairclough-Staggers voting yes; Bailey, Fletcher and Losner voting no.
Homestead received notice of two Harris Act claims on May 21 from the Alger family for about 192 acres in the accident potential zone of the Air Reserve Base (HARB). The letter asked for over $13 million in damages as actual loss on fair market value.
The City Attorney explained Florida’s Bert Harris Act is intended to provide private property owners with relief distinct from a takings claim.
A 2010 City Ordinance prohibited residences in the HARB’s accident zone. The land in question is designated agricultural for City planning but the Ordinance imposed new restrictions on use.
The Alger family recently exhausted their federal options after ten years of litigation leaving Harris claims as the only viable option for recovering lost value.
“Taxpayers are facing potential liability in excess of $13 million plus incurring attorney fees,” the Mayor said. “Enacting a 10% millage rate may not be sufficient for cover our shortfalls without major budget cuts.”
The City Attorney said Harris Act notification gives the City a ninety day window before claims are filed in Circuit Court. That date expires August 19.
The Harris Act offers a list of eleven items for a governmental entity to make a written settlement offer. Actions include changing the legislation to roll back residential restrictions, land swaps, transferring development rights, or offering no changes.
Mayor Losner said the City was at a disadvantage in discussing this strategy in front of the Algers and opposing Counsel, as allowed at a public hearing. The City Attorney said that under state law, the discussion does not qualify for
executive session privileges until a suit has been filed.
Councilmember Shelley said, “We’re left with one option – ultimately a change in the legislation to give them one unit per five acres on that property. It was already rejected by the Algers but I’m comfortable making that offer.”
Councilmember Roth said he found that if property rights were restored, the claimants could transfer the rights to another property to recover loss values.
Councilmember Avila invited input from the Algers’ attorney who said, “You can’t purchase theoretical rights. Under any analysis taking property is compensable. We have no choice but to pursue this claim because it’s sizable and it’s the family legacy. If no active settlement offer is made within 90 days we have no choice but to file suit.”
Councilmember Sean Fletcher made the motion to restore the property rights on the property, seeking to amend the Ordinance to provide one residence per five acres. The motion failed on a vote of 3 to 4; Fletcher, Fairclough- Staggers, and Losner voting yes; Shelley, Bailey, Roth and Avila voting no.
A final motion was made to defer discussion to a special meeting the next week which passed six to one, with Mayor Losner voting no.
Before the final vote, Mayor Losner challenged two Councilmembers to “recognize their significant conflicts of interest and leave the dais.” He thought this necessary to avoid an appearance of impropriety.
Councilmember Shelley works with the wife of an Alger claimant and Councilmember Avila is married to an armed services employee at HARB.
Councilmember Shelley denied any conflict saying Alger’s wife already left his employer’s board.
Councilmember Avila said she was advised that her husband’s employment was not a potential conflict with her official decisions that affect HARB.
A final Council issue was Councilmember Fairclough-Staggers video presentation on racial equity. Her program components were empowerment,
mentoring, health and wellness issues, home ownership attainment, economic development and small business creation, and police accountability and reform.
The Councilmember focused on the issue of police accountability, specifically the community rallying cry of body cameras for police. “Council can determine what direction to take,” she said. “I’m very sensitive to the fact we’re in a budget crunch but it’s critical to have this conversation.” She listed significant corporate grants made nationwide to encourage these community inclusion efforts.
The Homestead police department gave a report on police statistics, current reform efforts, and community policing - specifically body cameras. The City studied police body cameras in 2016 based on Florida statute 943.1718 with subsequent amendments.
Based on legally required training, record retention, and record request rules, body camera systems needed at least three additional positions to implement. Police focused on a quote from the most widely used system in the country, employed by Miami, Doral, and Miami Beach.
Each deployed officer would get a camera and the latest Taser available. A five year contract came with a no-cost replacement guarantee, new equipment every two and half years, and a suite of software to manage the program. Record storage would be in the cloud and a feature links footage to the State Attorney’s Office. The three new employees included a civilian redaction expert to review recordings such as at a hospital or school to protect privacy.
This system with most features costs $310,000 per year plus cost of three new positions. Total cost of the program comes to $777,272 per year for five years.
Council expressed support for body cameras with a brief discussion and an eye to the 2021 budget. Mayor Losner said he wanted to move forward but needed to see cost options for other systems.
After a long night of sound glitches and access issues, Mayor Losner asked the attorneys what Council’s legal obligations were to bring forth quasi-judicial items virtually. He said he was not comfortable with the transparency of the process as it relates to the public’s right to participate.