Apathy could kill Gables business district, director fears
By Risa Polansky
The Coral Gables Business Improvement District is up for reelection in the coming months, but voter apathy could lead to its extinction, Executive Director Mari Molina said.
According to Florida statutes, improvement districts must be voted on every five years and to be reinstated need yes votes from "a majority of the affected property owners," said Coral Gables City Attorney Elizabeth Hernandez. "That translates to 50% plus one."
The trouble is, Ms. Molina said, "if someone doesn't return a vote, it counts as a no vote, which wouldn't be fair. We're afraid we might get people not returning their ballot."
The method is no different from the previous election five years ago or the initial creation of the district in 1997, when commercial-property owners from Douglas Road to LeJeune roads and Aragon to Andalusia avenues voted to establish it, self-imposing a tax to contribute to promotional measures of the area.
Then, however, there were fewer property owners and most were local individuals, Ms. Molina said. There are now 144 after the district recently received city approval to expand one block north to include Giralda Avenue.
But in recent years, "this has become such a marketable place — the makeup is totally different," she said. "A lot of them are out-of-towners, a lot of them are corporations, a lot of them are trusts."
In receiving a ballot by mail, she said, "they may look at it and say, "I don't know much about this. I don't want to vote.'"
The city's target date to distribute signature cards to announce the election and take stock of property owners is Friday, said City Clerk Walter Foeman. Ballots are to follow July 1.
Ms. Molina said she is consulting an attorney "to see if there's a different methodology we could apply such as a petition" or counting 50% plus one of ballots received rather than of total owners for passage.
The city would be "remiss," she said, in continuing with the current method "if 30% didn't return the ballots and 12 of them got returned by the post office because we don't even have the right address."
She pointed to the low voter turnout in last month's local government election. Only 18% of registered voters cast ballots, according to the city's public-affairs department.
Similar apathy in the coming election could lead to the death of the district, Ms Molina said.
However, "other than the present format, no other option is contemplated by the statute," Ms. Hernandez said.
She said she is "not sure what other way they would be looking to go forward" but is "always happy to review any proposal put forth."
Gables Mayor Don Slesnick, a lawyer, agreed that "there is no other possibility" in tabulating votes without going to court or getting "another legal opinion of a higher authority" such as the attorney general.
"I want her (Ms. Molina) to win the election. The promotion of Miracle Mile is critical to our commercial business district," he said. "But we've got to follow the law."
Barring no conflict of interest, as the city has two votes in the election because improvement district taxes are assessed on its condominiumized parking garages, the mayor would be happy, he said, to formally and publicly support the district as the election nears.
To beat the clock before the vote, "we're working feverishly" to come up with a new solution, Ms. Molina said. "We can probably do it concurrently with the signature cards if we have to."
If there is truly no way around it as city officials say, Ms. Molina said, she is "up to the challenge" but still hopes to find "the best means to get fair and equitable balloting and canvassing."