September City Hall: Commission Raise, Expanding the City, and More

At its first September meeting, the City Commission:

Voted 5-0 to clarify legal protections for trees and increase fines for those who deface them, including those who staple paper notices to trees. Palm trees were also removed from the list of acceptable replacements for those who remove shade-providing trees from their properties.

“If you take down two large oaks to replace 1,000-square-feet of canopy, you can’t just put a bunch of palm trees everywhere. That’s no longer allowed,” clarified Assistant City Attorney Gustavo Ceballos.

Initial code enforcement fines will not exceed $1,000 but repeated violations can garner fines from $5,000 to $15,000. Residents who remove healthy trees from their properties will have to pay $2,500 for every 500-square-feet of canopy that is replaced, up from the previous amount of $1,500. (Sponsored by Mayor Lago)

Voted 5-0 to approve artists to submit proposals for a commemorative piece of public art aligned with the city’s centennial and honoring Bahamian and Black residents. The cost for the artwork will come from the Art in Public Places reserve fund.

Voted 3-2 to ratify the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the City of Coral Gables and the International Association of Firefighters to increase wages by almost 11 percent for Coral Gables firefighters, compounded over several years. The agreement will be considered valid until September 30, 2026 and will include backpay from October 1, 2020. Wage hikes will take place in increments of around three percent per year.

Negotiations between the City and the local chapter of the firefighters’ association have been ongoing for some time, with notable pushback from Mayor Lago. The mayor cited the total $93.3 million dollars in infrastructure the city has invested in the fire department over the last few years, from the Public Safety Building to the construction of a new firehouse, and the fact that Coral Gables firefighters are already in the top third in compensation in the county. He was also concerned about a potential recession. Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson agreed and also voted against.

From City Hall: Commission Raise, Expanding the City, and More

Voted 5-0 to install an F.P. Journe clock in the downtown area by Hillstone. The clock, valued around $100,000, was donated to the city by the high-end Swiss watch company but faced intense scrutiny from Commissioner Fernandez, who advocated for the company to either pay advertising revenue or for the Commission to accept similar bids from other companies who would. In the end, Mayor Lago offered to use his own personal money to fund the installation, ceasing further debate. (Sponsored by Mayor Lago)

Discussed annexation of the Little Gables and High Pines/Ponce Davis neighborhoods. At issue was one resident’s irritation at having received a petition that only had the option to vote “yes.” Assistant City Attorney Naomi Garcia explained that petitions are always conducted in this manner, similar to collecting signatures. “It functions in the same way. If you sign it and send it in, you’re expressing your support. They would only sign if they were in favor…. Ultimately, there will be a referendum where you can vote yes or no.”

From City Hall: Commission Raise, Expanding the City, and More

Whether annexation will actually happen remains to be seen, as resident feedback is still being evaluated and the process has only just begun. View the September community meeting on annexation here. (Sponsored by Commissioner Fernandez)

Voted 5-0 to create a charter review committee with at least three highly qualified individuals and the mayor’s appointee acting as chair. These committees are usually convened every decade, but this one has been moved up by two years as a result of the elections debacle. Vice Mayor Anderson recommended that, like in the past, the Commissioners nominate “individuals with extensive experience in the city and county,” including former elected officials, lawyers, professors, and others with similar pedigrees.

Commissioner Fernandez argued that both he and Commissioner Castro would be ineligible to serve on the Committee under the proposed qualifications. Anderson responded by saying that analyzing a charter is an act that requires a certain amount of know-how. “I think it would be a disservice to the community to appoint someone [that doesn’t know what they’re doing],” she said.

During the first budget hearing on the same day, the Commission also voted 3-2 to give themselves a 67 percent raise. Commissioners Fernandez, Castro, and Menendez all voted in favor, while Mayor Lago and Vice Mayor Anderson voted against. The proposed annual cost for such a raise is $265,000. Under the legislation, the mayor would receive a raise of around $35,000 more annually, but he refused to accept it, stating, “I will be writing a mechanism of some sort of legislation so that I won’t receive that increase…. Raising peoples’ salaries by 67 percent in one year… sends a horrible, horrible message.”

The entire Commission, including the mayor, operate as part-time employees. Commissioner Menendez is retired, Commissioner Castro works as the owner and CEO of MED Expeditors, and Commissioner Fernandez does not have another job. Vice Mayor Anderson is currently still practicing as a lawyer and Mayor Lago works at a management and design firm focused on commercial construction projects. The item did not show up on the original budget hearing agenda, meaning that there was little to no notice of it.

UPDATE: At the September 26 budget meeting, the Commission approved a $263 million budget that included a raise of almost double the current compensation for commissioners. Mayor Lago and Vice Mayor Anderson again voted against the raise, stating that they will both turn down compensation that surpasses the annual consumer price index increase of 2.63%. This month, the Commission will consider an ordinance to adjust the mayor and vice mayor’s salaries accordingly.

The rest of the commissioners will receive a 78 percent raise, from $36,488 to $65,000, along with double their annual expense allowance, from $4,800 to $9,600. The new budget also allocates $8,446 in annual car allowances for each member of the Commission. View the full budget meeting here.

Also at issue was the millage rate, a tax levied against homeowners. Mayor Lago recommended decreasing the tax by five percent, with the funding taken from capital projects, which Commissioner Fernandez declared “a disaster.” In the end, the rate remained the same with a 4-1 vote, only Mayor Lago dissenting.

Fernandez submitted his own presentation of a proposed budget including funds for capital projects, much of which would come from the City’s emergency fund for natural disasters, which has been saved by the City for about 15 years and is currently accumulating significant interest. A future hurricane could deplete the entire reserve of emergency funds, currently at around $50 million.