Coral Gables Commission Candidates Give Their Top 3 Issues (Updated With All Candidates)

The Coral Gables Commission election is scheduled for April 9, now less than a month away.

I wrote the same email to all the candidates in mid-February, asking for their views on what they saw as the top three issues:

Dear [Candidate Name]:

I am a professor of law at the University of Miami and run a blog at which, I’m told, many members of the University community look to for guidance regarding local elections.

As a resident of Coral Gables, I plan to start writing soon about the upcoming elections. I would be very grateful if you could help me by telling me a little about your candidacy.

In particular, I’d be grateful for URL of your official campaign web site, and your answer, on the record, to the following question:

“What do you see as the three most important issues facing Coral Gables at present, and what do you believe we should do about each of them?”

I hope to publish the responses from each of the candidates.

Thank you very much for your assistance with this project.

Yours Sincerely,

I used the email address in their official candidate filing. Not all responded, so a week later I sent it again, using addresses on their campaign pages if I could find it. I sent a third request — and made a followup phone call — yesterday, Monday 3/11. Even so, PJ Mitchell never answered at all, and although both the Cabrera and Lago campaigns promised answers I never received them. I look forward to adding them if they send them in later. [Update #1: Commissioner Cabrera sent in his list and it is now included below.] [Update #2 Vince Lago sent in his comments 3/13] [Update #3: it turns out that PJ Mitchell did respond in a timely way but my spam filter ate it. Everyone is now included below.] (Further comments from candidates and their supporters are also welcome in the comments.)

The candidates’ replies are below, in alphabetical order within each of the three groups. I will update this post as and when other replies trickle in. I also plan to go to the remaining forums, life permitting, and will post my voting suggestions nearer to election day.

Group I (Mayor, two year term)

There are two candidates Ralph Cabrera and incumbent James Cason. Cabrera is an incumbent Commissioner but is term-limited for running to retain his current seat. The next Candidates’ Forum is next Thursday (3/21) at the Coral Gables Congregational Church. Doors open 6:45; debate starts at 7pm.

Commissioner Ralph Cabrera:

  1. Property taxes and fees: While I have NOT supported an increase in property taxes in over ten years, the last two tax reductions were gratuitous at best. Ironically, these reductions have caused numerous frontline employees to lose their jobs, homes and personal vehicles, while at the same time, the city’s senior management has grown exponentially. This is completely unacceptable. In addition, the city has raised user and permits fees for at least two consecutive years. In my opinion, this is simply a shell game of reducing taxes and increasing fees. I propose we develop an equitable system in a more transparent and open forum and always consider our employees in this decision making process.
  2. Crime is up in Coral Gables. According to the FDLE, total crime grew over 13% in our city last year, while many neighboring communities experienced a reduction. While most of the reported crimes have been property related, it only takes one incident and or confrontation with a criminal to make it a violent crime. Unfortunately, the city’s current administration is doing everything to hide from the truth. This includes not informing and educating neighborhoods of criminal activities in affected areas. Another example to this was the recent strong arm robbery at the Biltmore Hotel. This crime went unreported to news outlets for nearly 2 weeks after it occurred. I propose that we start by recognizing the problem and then provide our department with all the necessary resources to proactively fight crime. In addition, I am a proponent of continually evaluating our efforts to ensure we are taking the correct steps to improve the safety and welfare of all affected stakeholders (residents, merchants, students and visitors).
  3. Maintain our city’s unique quality life: Instead of continually constructing cosmetic structures and projects throughout our city, we should be allocating resources to improving the quality of life of our neighborhoods. One example of this has been the lack of traffic calming initiatives in the last three years. I propose we re-direct our efforts towards this endeavor instead of borrowing $ 22 Million and increasing our debt by 38% and the term of this debt by 12 years. Additionally, the city should use landscape architects and other experts while adding streetscapes and improving roads VIA a PLAN, not via a campaign season.

Mayor James Cason:

  1. We have to continue to improve the finances of the city which involves three components: First, continuing pension reform – we’ve done 2 of the 3 unions. These are one year contracts so it’s a constant process. The second component is building up the reserves through greater efficiencies we have $12 million now and need to get to about $20m. We basically refinanced all of our debt, so that’s good. And we have to continue to lower taxes, the millage rate. Property values are going to up probably in the next year, so if we don’t offset it with lower millage rates people are going to be hit with higher taxes especially in the north of the Gables, where we have about a third of the population are single women without pensions and they re having a hard time.
  2. Continuing to reinvest in our city infrastructure. We neglected that for ten years and we are now in the process of what we call the ‘Neighborhood renaissance program’ putting $26 million into 17 neighborhood improvement projects such as 55 miles of street repaving, entrances and monuments and fountains, repairing decrepit sidewalks, building a Senior Center, traffic calming devices, tree replanting and new parks, and there’s a lot more. That’s where the money that came from the refinancing of our debt is going.
  3. Making our city attractive to young professionals so they will want to live work and play in the Gables. Couple of components: redoing downtown – StreetScape; bringing in sophisticated entertainment like jazz and comedy clubs; and some rezoning making available single and efficiency and one-bedroom apartments so this influx of young professionals that we’re seeing now can live in the Gables, and will want to stay in the Gables after dinner rather than go to S. Beach, S. Miami or Lincoln. Rd. We’ve been attracting companies to the Gables, with creative 30-40 year olds; they eat dinner in the Gables, but then go somewhere else, so our stores don’t stay open after 7pm, so there’s no street traffic and it is hard for businesses. We need to change this to a virtuous circle so it’s fun to be here later, there is street traffic, and businesses stay open later.

Group II (Commissioner, four year term)

There are three candidates in Group II: Marlin Holland Ebbert, Ross Hancock, and Vicente Carlos Lago. The next Candidates’ Forum is this Thursday at the Coral Gables Congregational Church. Doors open 6:45; debate starts at 7pm.

Marlin Holland Ebbert:


    A. Pension Reform
    – Continue the difficult process of implementing equitable changes to the municipal pension program for the employees thus creating a fair system that will result in taxpayer savings.
    – Change from a Defined Benefit Plan to a Defined Contribution Plan for newly hired employees.

    – If elected, I will not participate in the City’s pension program.

    B. The Neighborhood Renaissance Program
    – The City has borrowed $26 million for the NRP. This is the citizens’ money and I will work to ensure that they will be involved in how it is spent.

  2. CRIME Residential crime seems to be on many residents’ minds.

    Expand Neighborhood Crime Watch Program – Encourage neighborhoods to organize and watch out for each other – the best deterrent to local crime.

    Look into returning to the ZONE concept of police patrolling.


    – Lobby the Miami/Dade Public School Board to return to the true “neighborhood school” concept that existed while my children were growing up and attending the schools in Coral Gables.

Ross Hancock:

Coral Gables is a beautiful, thriving community whose survival hinges on addressing three issues that threaten its sustainability: education, environment, and availability of windstorm insurance. These are regional issues…so why should the city commission be involved?

Because if all of these regional issues are not properly addressed, the Coral Gables we enjoy today will fade away.

I have received campaign literature from both mayoral candidates that indicates that the state of the city is good. Services have improved and taxes are low. But the city is not an island.

The quality of public education has never been on par with the other public services provided in the city. Our neighboring communities like Pinecrest and Cutler Bay have been more active in investing politically and financially to improve local schools. I know from my experience as an economic development consultant that Gables school rankings have hurt our economy and our home values for decades.

Florida has 74 school districts. Illinois provides better educational outcomes and has 879 school districts. The optimal size for a school district might be about the size of Coral Gables. Local leadership of public education would be an exciting alternative to the bloated mediocrity of our county district. If nothing changes, homebuyers and businesses will continue to be attracted to communities that provide great public education. The proposed “parent trigger bill,” though I strongly oppose it, would open the door to a “city trigger” in which Coral Gables could take control of local schools and their funding. A public education partnership with University of Miami would be interesting, analogous to UM’s role in our public hospital system.

South Florida faces a shortage of water resources that will slow its growth. Climate change is real, and Coral Gables needs to plan for sporadic flooding and saltwater intrusion. Our economy could be impacted by slowing of development, decreased property values, and property insurance shortages. Because of environmental limits, our ability to grow is limited; we will have to grow smarter, not bigger.

The crisis in windstorm insurance could have a disastrous impact on property values. Coral Gables needs to partner with its neighboring coastal municipalities to address this. Perhaps expansion of the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program initiated by Cutler Bay and adopted by Coral Gables and surrounding cities could help address this issue by emphasizing no-risk financing for wind-hazard abatement improvements.

The focus on regional issues and cooperation with our neighboring cities is what distinguishes my platform. Crime, economic insecurity, and Mother Nature don’t pause at the city limits. I will be the commissioner who networks with our peer municipalities to find solutions that benefit us all. That’s my campaign slogan: We are all in this together!

Pension obligations, the deferred portion of each employee’s compensation, should ideally be funded in the year in which each employee’s service is rendered. Pensions are like a loan from the employees, where we pay them wages plus a promise of future payments in return for their immediate service. The formula for defined benefit expense is the present value of the year-to-year change in the obligation (itself a complex but doable actuarial calculation) plus interest costs on last year’s obligation minus pension fund investment returns plus or minus adjustments that need to be made on last year’s assumptions (regarding investment returns and actuarial items like salary changes, turnover, etc.) plus an amortization of past service liabilities (normally obligations that were not funded because of amendments to benefits, but maybe in our case an amortization of all the past unfunded obligations).

Anyway, if the city pays as it goes, there would be no problem, as long as the city is otherwise solvent and could bear the ongoing expense. So my solution is to amortize and begin funding the obligations that we didn’t pay when we should have, stay current with our obligations as we go, and everyone will have transparency and a reasonable confidence in the city’s financial integrity.

I am pleased to see so much focus by the candidates on this long-term issue. At a recent forum, all the candidates recognized pensions as the major issue facing the city. Without taking away anything from the importance of the pension shortfall that we face over the period of a few decades, how can we ignore the windstorm insurance problem that threatens our very viability as a community of homeowners? How do we not recognize how climate change is going to affect us financially in the same timeframe? How do we not address the economic future of Miami-Dade as a whole, where we may not possess an educated workforce to sustain a 21st century economy?

Vicente Carlos Lago:

  1. Fiscal Responsibility / Pension Reform
    Over the past two years, the Cities leadership has successful negotiated with both the Police and General Employees Unions. I am a supporter of our Cities employees and the services that they provide; however, the Cities’ unfunded liability in excess of 230 million dollars is unsustainable. The adjustments in compensation and benefits that were made to the existing defined benefit plan have given the city the necessary space to make sure that moving forward the end result is a sustainable pension system that will be available to serve its purpose.

    Currently the City of Coral Gables is one of the most under funded retirement systems in the state of Florida. Yearly, our City pays approximately 24 million dollars towards the pension system; 12 million of those dollars are dedicated to paying the burdensome unfunded liability.

    If our pension system was not currently underfunded, the City could use these monies for projects that would directly benefit our community and our quality of life.

    We need to continue to monitor in great detail the current and future health of our Cities pension system and make the necessary reforms to ensure its viability. This continued effort will be the responsibility of not just the elected officials and the unions, but of the entire community as a whole.

  2. Downtown / Streetscape Project
    I still fondly remember being dropped of at my grand mother’s residence on Minorca Avenue, located just a few blocks away from Miracle Mile and enjoying our daily strolls up and down the Mile. My grandmother, like many in this community, no longer frequents our Downtown due to the current erosion of city sidewalks and the lack of proper lighting during the evening. For many elderly residents like my grandmother, our Downtown has become more of a nightmare than pleasurable oasis. For this reason, I along with many in this community are in support of the proposed Streetscape Project, which at a cost of approximately 16 million dollars will revitalize Miracle Mile and Giralda Avenue. In addition to improving the safety in Downtown, a renovation of Downtown will further enhance residents’ experience and quality of life.

    The proposed Streetscape Project will be funded in the following manor: 25% by the City of Coral Gables, this portion has already been included within the 2012 budget and the remaining 75% will be funded through a special assessment from the businesses that directly benefit from the proposed improvements. This project will neither increase taxes nor fees on the residents. Rather, this project would result in an increase in property values which in turn benefits the Cities tax base.
    I have had the privilege of meeting with property owners, tenants on the Mile and many patrons that all agree that input from the Downtown community is heard prior to the commencement of the project.

    If you analyze the revitalization projects that have recently been completed in the City of South Miami, Wynwood, The Design District and Mary Brickell Village , you will clearly see that they all have something in common-their municipalities investments in their infrastructure has resulted in incredible dividends.

  3. Protecting Our Neighborhoods / Quality of Life
    Walking door to door over the past six months has truly given me an insight to each neighborhood’s concerns and issues.

    The top five issues that resonate with our neighbors are as follows:
    1. Location, funding and eventual construction of a Senior Center.
    2. Tree replanting in areas that were ravished by white fly or other viruses.
    3. Purchasing distressed assets/residential properties for the construction of pocket parks (Open Passive Parks) similar to the project that is proposed on Alhambra Circle between Mercado Avenue and Mendavia Avenue.
    4. Increased street lighting on the residential streets.
    5. Installation of traffic/speed calming devices.

Group III (Commissioner, four year term)

There are five candidates: Jackson Rip Holmes, Patricia A. Keon, P.J. Mitchell, Norman Anthony Newell, and Mary Martin Young.

The Group 3 Candidates’ forum was last Thursday, but I had to miss it because I was out of town. That leaves me, so far, in much the same position as most voters, dependent on the Miami Herald Neighbors account of the event, Coral Gables Group 3 candidates agree on pension reform, curbing crime. If they really don’t disagree on any issues, that will make it a campaign on biography and personal appeals.

Candidates in Group III will be included in the All Candidates events at the Latin Builders Association (3/22, noon – anyone know where?) and the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce event at the University of Miami, Bank United Fieldhouse, Tuesday 3/26 6pm.

Jackson Rip Holmes:

  1. low taxes — vote against tempting, wasteful expenditures
  2. strong police — support police budget, get to know police work
  3. strong fire and trash pickup — support their budgets.

In short, support police, fire, trash pickup, make cuts on other matters.

[In a subsequent message, Mr. Holmes added:]

Recognizing UM is an international, intellectual OASIS, try to involve students and faculty with City issues as much as possible.

Patricia A. Keon:

  1. Establishing greater accountability regarding city finances by creating performance standards and performance measures for city departments and tying the budget to these.
  2. Public Safety with emphasis on neighborhood patrolling, crime investigation and clearance.
  3. Working with the school board to set neighborhood school policies so that parents know what school their child will attend when they move to a neighborhood.

P.J. Mitchell:

  1. The most important issue facing the city is the $200 million dollars of unfunded liabilities. Although the city is on a better financial footing in 2013 than it was in 2011, we still need to have a long term plan to bring down the cost. We need to reform the city’s pension structure as to more equitably provide savings for the taxpayers and maintain the world-class first responders we are so blessed to have serve our city. As your next commissioner for Group 3, I want to work with everyone to make this a fair and open process.
  2. The issue of crime and public safety is a real concern for many residents. As I knock on doors throughout the city, folks are genuinely concerned with the issue of home burglaries. We cannot have the residents of this city fearful of leaving their homes. I will work with the police and city leaders to ensure that we are proactive and not reactive in limiting these incidents of crime.
  3. Transparency in city government is an important issue and an important goal of mine. The taxpayers of this city deserve to have a city government that has their best interest in mind. To that end, I will work tirelessly to ensure that all of the city’s residents have a fair and honest government.

Norman Anthony Newell:

  1. Pension Reform. This has been a divisive issue for the city. The unions protect the interests of their members. The city does the same for the taxpayers. Recent negotiations have been tough, harsh even. But both sides have done nothing more than what they’re obligated to do. That said, last year’s collective-barganing agreements with Teamsters and Police have been restorative and should prove to chip away at the UAAL, which has exploded over the last decade. This issue is often debated on grounds of fairness and justice, but this is above all else a matter of sustainability. Since collective-barganing agreements expire between one to three years, there is always the potential for new commissions to drastically alter the status quo. I believe recent reforms have moved the city toward long-term sustainability. Drastic changes in either direction should be avoided.
  2. Taxes. Fortunately, taxation at the local level is much simpler than at the federal level. There is no need to fret over the diminishing marginal utility of money or the other concepts that make it difficult to find an objectively fair level of taxation. Federal obligations are increasing and show no signs of yielding; I see no reason not to expect further upward pressure on tax rates at the federal level. The city can and should offset this burden with lower property taxes coupled with investments that will help boost property values. There is no reason why, given the current condition of city property, we cannot lower rates and increase revenue over the medium and long terms. And lower taxes are good for all residents of Coral Gables, from the wealthiest property owner to the U.M. student barely getting by on ramen noodles in a rented apartment; we all pay these taxes–whether we realize it or not.
  3. Refurbishment. Our city is well-known for its beauty and commercial appeal, but a quick stroll down Miracle Mile betrays a rather unfortunate reality: certain segments of Coral Gables are decaying. Miracle Mile itself is a vision of badly undulating sidewalks, old and broken tile, poor drainage, and decrepit building facades. Can anyone remember the last time this stretch of the Gables was updated? Fortunately, the city has a refurbishment plan in the works–a robust streetscape project. By providing a much-needed makeover to Miracle Mile, property values are poised to increase substantially. An increase in property values will allow the city to collect more tax revenue without having to hike rates. This benefits the entire city. This initiative would compliment the recently implemented Neighborhood Renaissance Program, through which the significant savings realized by virtue of debt reorganization was steered toward improving every neighborhood throughout Coral Gables. As Commissioner, I would stand behind these initiatives and others like it, so long as they stand to improve the quality of life for residents throughout the city.

Mary Martin Young:

First, when you ask me what “I think” are our City’s most important issues; I’d like to suggest the following:

  • Maintaining our City’s current world class services;
  • Preserving our citizens quality of life; and
  • Making our government more user friendly.

My responses to each are based on knocking on neighbors’ doors these past 100 days, chatting with past, current and future community leaders …and the results of my own experience as a 22 year resident, business leader, volunteer and educator.

  • Simply put, the answers to bullet one and two are “affordability” and “fiscal responsibility”. This means using good business sense in budgeting and associated spending and ongoing management of city employee pension liability. The City’s 2012-2013 Budget, 2011 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) and 2013 Capital Improvement Budget are all documented under the Finance Department’s web site; this represents transparency and our citizen’s ability to respond to anything documented in those key financial reports. Pension reform must be managed as an ongoing “process” and furthermore should be “a shared responsibility” that is born by taxpayers and city service employees. An insolvent municipality has no ability to pay future annuities.
  • As for bullet three, I draw on my past 30 years as a technology executive…remember your first ATM at a bank? your first on line PAY PAL payment? accessing a website for information? I would like our City to explore best “self service” options for frequent requests and better understand how we might blend “on line service” options with current departmental functions.
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