Last night I attended the Coral Gables Commission Candidates’ Forum for Group II, organized by the Ponce Business Association. There are three candidates in Group II: Marlin Holland Ebbert, Ross Hancock, and Vicente Carlos Lago.
If this election were just about money, it would be a cakewalk: at the most recent filing, as reported by gableshomepage.com, Marlin Ebbert reported raising $22,845, Ross Hancock had raised all of $1,555, and Vincente Lago had banked $124,553. While the money looks completely one-sided, both of the other candidates do have something going for them: Ebbert has a large family and a social network arising from a long history of civic engagement; Hancock comes off a near-win campaign for State Rep so he must enjoy some name recognition. Hancock was the only candidate to mention the funding issue, which came up eloquently in his closing statement.
The format of the Forum was simple: three-minute openings from each candidate, then audience-submitted questions read by the moderator. Each candidate had two minutes to reply to each question, and at the end there were two-minute closing statements. There might have been just over a hundred people in the audience at the Coral Gables Congregational Church, and I – no longer a spring chicken – felt like one of the younger ones. Local CBS4 news anchor Eliott Rodriguez, a Coral Gables resident, was the genial moderator.
Although the candidates differed on only a handful of substantive issues, the 90-minute event was surprisingly revealing about the candidates’ contrasting styles, experience, and attitudes. Marlin Ebbert seemed like the classic concerned citizen: she was the least scripted, the worst at keeping to time, but seemed very sincere. While it’s clear she’s been active in the community for years, and had been doing her homework, she still came off as not always fully up to speed on some financial details. It wasn’t surprising to learn she’d been running the PTA at Coral Gables high – she seemed like the type to organize stuff and do it well. On the other hand, Ms. Ebbert’s account of leading the eviction of local squatters came off as a bit heartless: One of the homes in her neighborhood was in foreclosure for five years; the bank let it fall into disrepair. Then some squatters moved in. They mowed the lawn, they cleaned up the place, even put up Christmas decorations, paid the water and electric bill…the last item being their undoing: Ms. Ebbert noticed the air conditioning running, and notified the code enforcement people … ultimately leading to their eviction. My reaction was that as she had described it, all the squatters were doing was increasing local property values, but Ms. Ebbert seemed offended by riff-raff in our midst: “We can’t have squatters in Coral Gables”. [The Miami Herald covered the eviction in February. The story gives conflicting accounts as to whether the residents were scammers or victims of a phoney lease, suggests the interior was not as well maintained as the exterior, and also notes the allegation that someone stole various appliances.]
Vincent Lago was the most telegenic (he’s also the youngest). He had the sharpest jacket, the crispest-sounding sound bites. He also came off as pretty sincere, salting his comments with many anecdotes based on a near-lifetime in the Gables. But he said three things that worried me: First he said he would never ever raise taxes. Then later he said that he “would never compromise services, just as I said I would never raise taxes.” In so doing he failed to admit the possibility – the likelihood – that these two pledges would ever conflict, much less confront the question of which of those pledges should come first. I am not a fan of magical thinking. In the discussion of a proposed anti-leaf-blowing ordinance, Mr. Lago said he is for limited government and personal choice. That’s a nice sound bite, and may be a good general principle, but in the context it seems at odds with the entire ethic and history of Coral Gables: we are, after all, one of the nation’s original planned communities. We have, for example, a notoriously extensive and detailed zoning code which many see as important to maintaining the nature of the city. Mr. Lago may mean he’s for the status quo, or that he’s for regulations he likes (e.g. no boat bay on Matheson Hammock) and against those he doesn’t like (banning leaf blowers), but it wasn’t possible for me to figure out what the guiding principle if any might be.
Ross Hancock was the candidate for radio. He looked the most rumpled, but talked the best game. He was, of the three, the only one expressing a vision that went beyond the immediate problems facing the city: he thinks we better start worrying about global warming now, while there’s time to plan what we’ll do when the water table rises causing both street flooding and problems with the potable water supply. Even the perception that Coral Gables is at risk of rising tides will increase our home insurance premiums, he warned persuasively, make it hard to sell homes, and nearly impossible to secure mortgages. This, even more than his focus on taking control of schools in order to make our schools as good as other city services and remove the greatest barrier – poor school options – to corporate relocation, had me leaving the room thinking he was the most impressive candidate of a generally credible crew.
Below I reproduce my notes of the event for those who want a less filtered account of the forum. These are not verbatim transcripts, but rather my summaries, unless I put “quote marks” around a text, in which case I did attempt to scribe it verbatim. I also inserted a couple of personal comments in [brackets]. [Update: Howard Cohen of the Miami Herald covers the forum.]
ME=Marlin Ebert, RH=Ross Hancock, VL=Vicente Carlos Lago
ME’s opening showed her humanity … and inexperience. She started with some biography about her move to Coral Gables from Pennsylvania. “We were used to roots and we wanted to put down roots.” She sent her kids to the local public schools. Got involved in the PTAs at the schools, and was PTA president of Coral Gables HS. Joined the Villages (an historic preservation group). … and then time for the introduction ran out just as she was warming up.
RH said he moved here 25 years ago, picked a church and a pre-school, both he and his wife started businesses. He served as chair of the Coral Gables Restaurant Association, served on board of directors of a church school… Coral Gables “is much more than a tax bill to me” it’s where my children grew up. The he had a firm that worked to promote tourism for Coral Gables, and then for South Dade. He started a newspaper, due to which he attended more public meetings than most members of the Commission. Coral Gables is being left behind in regional planing. This upcoming election is about picking a team. Voters should think like a coach and pick people “with different skills”… “who do not hog the ball.”
VL said he was born in Louisiana, moved here with his parents 30 years ago. Listed all the streets he’s lived on – Started on Minocra Ave, now his grandmother lives there, then moved to San Amaro, he went to Gulliver Prep. Married for 5 years, and is moving back to San Amaro. “I’m involved in the city” – Planning & Zoning Board, [other civic activities went by too fast to type]. Three main issues: 1. protect the quality of our life; 2. ensure financial foundation of city; 3. enhance services.
Questions from the floor (which attendees had written on cards)
Q: What is the #1 issue and what would you do about it.
RH: Everyone thinks pension issue is big. Not my #1 but because everyone thinks it is, I’m going to address it. When city hires people it pays salary and deferred compensation. We didn’t fund the pension funds property year after year. We’re in trouble now, the city dropped the ball. We need to pay as we go, get caught up, and if we want to change obligations in the future we can do that.
ME: Agree pension issue is very large. But it is not new, has been building for a long time. Will not be solved quickly; have to be patient, deal with contracts as they come up for negotiation.
VL: Pension reform is incredibly important. We have the worst underfunded pension in the state — $200m. I commend police for coming to the table, making concessions. Fire is next. I am for creating 401k option for new hires. This can make it hard to draw the best talent; but I am favor of it.
ME: If go to 401k you lose the ability to have existing employees help pay off existing debt.
RH: Agrees with ME. The issue is past decisions: we have to pay for past promises to existing workers. We can cut future costs, but we can’t do much about past costs.
[MF comment: As I understand it, if some employees are no longer part of the city’s defined benefit plan, that decision could result in the City losing much of the general employees’ 20-percent contribution to the fund, a sum which currently goes toward paying down the unfunded liability. In short, we’d risk losing more than we saved.] [Update (3/17): Then again, it may be that I don’t understand it — see the helpful corrections from Jimmy and Ross Hancock below.]
Q: Do current retirees deserve a 6% COLA?
RH: City turned it down in a cowardly way, claiming a state law blocked it. Cost of living in a pension should be part of a pension plan as it is part of the promise and what workers expected when they agreed to the deal.
ME: I attended that meeting. [I missed something here in my notetaking, but the thrust seemed to be not supporting the COLA assuming the state-law-based argument is right.]
VL: “I will never raise taxes” – you pay enough – opposes COLA 6%. Funds are not there.
Q: How do you feel about city employees being eligible for food stamps after contributing 20% for their pensions?
VL: 2nd time I’ve heard this question. It hurt to hear it. Employees are important. When I hear that someone is on food stamps I want to know why. Can’t get Food Stamps if you are getting over $36K/yr. Would want to get to the bottom of it.
ME: I would be very surprised if that were the case. We’d have to get to the bottom of it. I’m surprised.
RH: City, in attempt to fix past mistakes of 15 years, has tried many schemes. One was to tell employees they would have to pay 20% of their gross salary into pension funds. Including some of least paid employees, landscapers etc. If you think about suddenly losing 20% of your income, that’s a pretty big hit and that is why people are in financial trouble. Big disparity between pay of high-level people, and even Assistant Directors, and the ones that do much of the work, the disparity is kind of alarming. We need to bring this into alignment. We want to be proud of helping the people who help us.
Q: How do you feel about the city being top-heavy with high-salary people?
RH: I think it is a problem as I just said.
ME: We do have a lot of chiefs, even though the total number of employees has dropped. City manger does the hiring; he must feel the need. I”m not sure that the commission has anything to do with the everyday management of the city. it’s a strong city manager system.
VL: Not sure of breakdown between mangers/co-workers. I would want to attract the most talented individuals. I am not sure if we are top-heavy. But if we don’t have people with right qualifications, I have no qualms about hiring to bring people in to innovate.
Q: Given that pensions and other union issues are via negotiations, how do you as a commissioner affect negotiations?
VL: I would never compromise services, just as I said I would never raise taxes. If you just have one side that is happy, I don’t consider that a win.
ME: City manager has lawyers who do the actual negotiation. Only comes to commission when they are at an impasse.
RH: There’s always been an idea that changing future pensions will fix current liabilities. It won’t because those have been earned. When we go into the future, negotiate, we need to do it wisely, but competitively, it is a business decision. But none of that will help the current unfunded liability. We’re going to amortize it, pay yearly, catch up.
Q: There were squatters in our neighborhood–the city is looking at an ordinance to deal with squatters that take up residence in foreclosed homes. Do you support it, does it go far enough?
ME: Was discussed for 1st reading at Tuesday’s Commission meeting. Squatters on Sunset were directly across the street from me. I turned the city on to the fact that the squatters were there. The house had been empty for five years. I noticed the A/C running. Code enforcement official said he couldn’t evict because the building was bank-owned not city-owned. Squatters cleaned up, cut the grass, decorated for Christmas. They were paying FPL, the water bills. I’m glad we will have an ordinance. We can’t have people squatting in Coral Gables!
VL; I agree with ordinance. I’ve been canvassing thousands of homes. I met two people with a good idea. I’ve seen one to two dozen homes that are abandoned. Not being taken care of. Why not put together public-private partnership, then if the home is abandoned, and the bank is “foreign” – from out of town – so we can beautify it, make it less of an eyesore. We would do small cosmetic things like mow grass, not give them windfalls like replacing the windows.
RH: Likes VL’s idea, but wanted to say to ME that “Coral Gables has the best squatters in the world. No one can touch our squatters.” The real issue is windstorm insurance. We need affordable homeowners insurance. Can’t sell your home if the buyer can’t get insurance [because no bank will write a mortgage for property that can’t be insured]. That is a bigger issue than pensions. If that isn’t fixed we won’t be able to pay the pensions anyway.
Q: Crime. Someone broke into my [the moderator’s] neighbor’s house. This has happened often — I know of 2 or 3 or more. The question is, “Is crime up, and what can you say to residents who fear becoming a victim?”
RH: I had a car stolen, it was used to assault a police officer. Property crime turns into violent crime quickly. We’ve cut back on police, we’ve cut back on community officers that help public schools (just as we enter into the era of Sandy Hook). There was a time when people were afraid to commit a crime in Coral Gables — we need that back for our home values and our safety.
ME: I would see that the Crimewatch program goes into every neighborhood. I host Crimewatch parties. I know my neighbors. I collect packages and newspapers in front of houses. Police cannot be everywhere. I feel guilty every time I leave something at a house where no one is home. Need a rule to stop solicitations [doorhangers] (like for pizza) that show people are not home. People should turn on their alarms.
VL: My #1 priority is my family. Two years ago we had both A/Cs and our pool pump stolen from the property we were buying while we closing on our new home. Violent crime has fallen by 1%. Put more police on the street. We need to spend money lighting streets. That is a deterrent. How do we do that? “We need an answer.” Light is always a deterrent. I saw a report from Matrix consulting on police efficiency. It is not exciting reading but makes good suggestions for the City about increasing efficiency.
Q: What green initiatives do you support?
ME: We haven’t added one single new thing to recycling since recycling started. we cannot recycle cardboard, this is a shame. City of Miami does better, lots of places do better. We have a green initiative task force. They need to increase what we can recycle.
RH: Insurance companies foresee more flooding and more intrusions into our water supply, a supply which is already insufficient. Coral Gables has done nothing as a city to plan even for the perception of this happening and even just a perception will affect housing values and mortgages and insurance. The City of Miami has a giant plan; we need to understand the future of climate change and how it will impact us, and make that a part of every decision that we make. Need to understand the financial impact. People need to understand water is coming, travel will be harder, toilets will not flush.
VL: I respect global warming, but I am concerned about the small things I can do. When we rebuilt our house we started looking into how can we make a difference about the environment. We put LED lights ($32 each), a tankless water heater, we used a drip method sprinkler, instead of regular landscaping we will landscape with native plants. We can do small things. Global warming is real, but if we all take small steps, that is what we can do. [I.e. can’t do big things.]
Q: Should there be a boat storage facility in Matheson Hammock?
VL: I am 100% opposed to any development in Matheson Hammock. Leave it the way it is. I fish, I grew up running around on Matheson Hammock. That is a treasure. We got engaged near there, it is important to me.
ME: I agree. Matheson is such a treasure. We had my son’s rehearsal dinner there.
RH: I’m so happy to hear this expressed so well. Agree wholeheartedly.
Q: Noise pollution. What is your stance on leaf blowers?
RH: Leaf blowers – as a homeowner I don’t appreciate them. If anything else made that much noise and polluted so much, it wouldn’t be allowed if it didn’t blow leaves. I would support a city ban.
ME: I agree. There’s nothing more annoying on a nice day. But the real issue of noise is whole house generators that people install for hurricanes. There is one near me that has to kick on for 30 minutes once a week, noise is just deafening. This is going to be an issue in the next power outage.
VL: Not for or against. Have to concentrate on times that people can use them. Like truck ordinance. Let people choose. If you outlaw leaf blowers, city is overstepping its bounds. I want less government. Rule right now allows start at 7:30am on weekdays; push it back to 9am to help people taking a day off and retirees.
Q: is it important to spend $360K on trees for Lejune Rd. when seniors get less money than that for their programs?
VL: No. We need new senior center.
ME: City has to differentiate between ‘want’ and ‘need’. Wrote letter printed in Herald about trees planted downtown. We paid over $420K for those trees and irrigation and curbing . We need a Senior Center. 27% of our population is over 55. Slow down on trees, build the center.
RH: Seniors before trees. I’m on the Board of Directors of a senior group. We don’t want to be segregated from the community, we want to be active. How did the trees get ahead of the senior center? Someone made a lot of money on those trees.
Q: Miracle Mile parking configuration – obsolete? How to change it?
RH: Look at Miracle Mile like an ecosystem, or a garden: how do you maximize how it looks, what you harvest from it? Give Miracle Mile what it needs to thrive. But gardens have limits. Nature is telling us we are growing out of proportion to parking. If you are trying to fudge it you have too many cars, too much traffic – we need to make Miracle Mile work with the parking that is available.
ME: $16 million has been set aside for fixing Miracle Mile. Lots off-the-street parking options are a disgrace. Street feels safe, parking garages do not. Garages need to be taken down, rebuilt higher. Parking is vital for Miracle Mile to thrive. The parking garage on Aargon is a model. others are a mess.
VL: I can’t tell you if we need more or less parking on Miracle Mile. Coral Gables studied traffic in 2006, and found an excess of parking. Currently, there is a $16m project with 25% paid by city; 75% by businesses and lessees. We can’t decide on the parking until it is in analyzed [again]. Streetscape project says it wants to go to parallel parking, at a cost of 70 spaces. A new parking study is in progress will be finished this year. We’ll find out what we need, figure out whether we need to do both garages or just one.
Q: What is your position on Streetscape? Is it worthwhile?
VL: Yes, but need to be careful in spending. Thus for example wait for the study on parking. Ensure taxpayers don’t have to pay for Streetscape in future. (25% already in budget.) I am in favor — if it is done correctly . That is more important than fast. S.Miami, Mary Brickel etc. have done revitalizations that bring in professionals who stay there for the evening.
ME: Good and necessary investment. Lots of empty storefronts on MM. There are stores there that might leave, eg. Ross/ B&N — could one be the senior center? — but we need to do it.
RH: Streetscape is a great example of tending to a major economic development engine for the city. A lot will depend on retails. There is competition. We need to bring in experts to, for example., get UofM to do more development downtown, and stop using up greenscape. Right now UM shopping goes to South Miami.
[MF comment: I think it’s all about transport; if the city would run a trolley to the middle of campus, it would get more traffic downtown. Not much chance of that, though.]
Q: Last year Somerset Academy reached an agreement with its neighbors; if it wants to re-open negotiations, what is your position?
RH: I opposed having any students there at all. But some parents find the school to be a Godsend. This shows we need to make our schools on the same level as our services. The schools fall short. People move to Palmetto Bay for the schools. We should invest in our schools — that is the #1 issue we need to take on in our community. That is what drives economic development. Fortune 500 companies won’t come here due to the schools, and that has been the case for many years.
ME: My kids went to public schools. We need to lobby the School Board to return to neighborhood schools. What made the charter schools attractive is neighborhood schools don’t exist anymore. 40% of every tax dollar we spend goes to the school board. Somerset is working with the number they compromised on. Current size (260) is the maximum for the space.
VL: Somerset issue started in Planning and Zoning board. I opposed increase to 720 students. (I work for Miami Dade schools), I was principle for a day at coral gables high. Incredible what they go through in a day. Somerset deal allows them to come back to planning board with a traffic study. I am opposed to any increase, but they will show you that they have 100s of parents who want to put their kids in a charter school. Leave the number as it is.
VL: This was my first debate. My cell phone is on all my literature. Feel free to call me and ask questions.
RH: Public schools is key issue. Proper size of a school district is about the size of Coral Gables: one high school and feeder schools. Better than the monstrosity of Dade County public schools. Parent trigger bill coming would allow parents of Coral Gables schools to vote to turn over operations to operate schools as a community. We need to do something — that’s #1.
April 10 we’ll wake up to see if this election is bought by lobbyists and special interests. More money raised in this group than any others. I don’t blame anyone for getting $500 checks from lobbyists and developers. Please join me in saying “no way not in Coral Gables.” I will honor your trust in me.
ME: I go to Costco and come back, and I come through gates of Coral Gables, boy do I know I’m in a different place. We are so fortunate to live here. If elected I want to maintain the quality of life that we have come to expect. I feel we are on a good course; I want safer streets for biking, running, and walking. Better environment, recycling. On the first Saturday of every month we’d recycle things that are difficult. We should return to neighborhood schools.
I know how to live within a budget; I’d spend the Coral Gables budget like it was coming out of my own pocket.
Ross Hancock expressed great knowledge of Coral Gables while showing a sense of humor. He clearly grasps the issues and thinks on his feet (or in this case–from his chair). He was the standout in this group.
It will be awful for the city if the candidate with the most campaign cash wins this race. He is so inexperienced and ill prepared to serve the city based on his answers last night. His campaign literature is short on details too. Vince Lago, his friends on the commission and off, do a disservice to the city by campaigning for his election before he knows the difference between personal investment in green development and city guidelines driving and incentivizing developers to build to Leed standards.
Great cities have great thinkers involved in government. In this race that seems to be Ross Hancock.
Mr. Froomkin your comment regarding the 20% the general employees currently pay being used to pay down the unfunded liability is completely false and misleading to the public. Not one dollar of this is going to the unfunded liability, the fact is that it is paying current costs only. When the city imposed the current contract on the general employees, it realized a savings of over 3 million dollars. Not one penny of that sum was paid to the unfunded liability. It was placed into the general reserves and is being used to buy trees. If the city was truly concerned about the unfunded liability, it would long ago have long ago imposed a contract with similar cost savings on the other city employees making 3 times as much as the lowest paid general employees, while at the same time using that money to help pay down the liability. The managerial employees in fact do have a cost sharing plan the same as the general employees. A rencent report by the pension board actuary found that this group must also pay 20% as do the general employees. This same report slightly lowered the general employees amount, and this was put into effect immediately by the city. However, the higher contribution rate was NOT placed on the management group because according to the city they were still ” evaluating” the report. So, the city only questioned the results for management and not for everyone? It is quite clear this has nothing to do with concern over unfunded liability, but rather protecting one group of employees while blatantly discriminating against another.
The fact is no other governmental agency in Florida or the United States forces its lowest paid employees to pay such an obscene amount of their pay into a retirement plan. The problem took decades to get into and can not be gotten out of overnight by making employees choose between gas money and food and medicine for their children.
Jimmy has it right. All the efforts to change contributions in the future don’t have a direct effect on the giant liability that has spiraled over many years from the city underfunding the obligation in each fiscal year as it accrued, while sometimes investing in risky stocks to try to get an unsustainable return. Our politicians act like cutting pension commitments in the future will be a magic time machine to repair past mistakes. We need to be frugal about future obligations, but also we need to repair our past errors. (And this needs to be explained to the community by people who actually understand the situation.)
Thank you both for the correction.