Miami Lakes voters on Tuesday night defeated a municipal bond proposal to fund $19.5 million worth of improvements in Optimist Park, the verdict after a series of passionate arguments that galvanized residents and elected officials for the last six months.
About 55% of voters in Miami Lakes cast a ballot on the bond issue; of the 20,906 residents who are registered to vote, 11,478 cast votes, with 6,819 against compared to 41% (4,659) for the proposed project.
That passion, and the citizen activism it fueled, may not be completely tabled yet. It’s likely that the Optimist campaign will now simply be re-invented, with many in the town still seeking a way to upgrade the fields and amenities.
But it won’t be for $19.5 million.
Before the issue was decided, residents debated the condition of the town’s largest green space, which often floods; argued over the proposed redesign and costs; whether to continue to share the property with Miami Dade County Public Schools (as the town has done for 40 years and which it will continue to do until 2062, with two 10-year extensions) and if “outsiders” would or should be able to use it.
Town Manager Edward Pidermann said in an email before election night that if the referendum failed, he would “start to develop any and all Plan Bs,” but didn’t yet have specific plans to describe.
Councilwoman Marilyn Ruano was against improvements to the park that would cost more than $5 million.
“Needless to say, I think Miami Lakers expressed their non-desire for a $20 million renovation,” Ruano said on election night, when nearly 60 % of voters defeated the bond referendum.
“I knew this would happen, that residents didn’t have an appetite for such a big project,” Ruano said. “It failed when it was on a ballot several years ago, for a lesser amount. So now we go back to the drawing board and do this all over again.”
Homeowner Mirtha Mendez, an opponent to the bond issue, said of the result, “I don’t consider it a win. The residents spoke.”
She said she also was not surprised.
“The council did a straw ballot in 2004, for improving three parks, and that was defeated too,” Mendez said. “They should have taken more input from the community before going full speed ahead.”
Certification of election results could happen within the next two weeks, said Miami Lakes Town Clerk Gina Inguanzo, who is also the town’s supervisor of elections.
The six-months-long fight inspired dueling political action committees and on social media, videos pro and con, testimonials, heartfelt shared memories of childhood days in the sandlot, and memes, including one that calculated the property tax increase by the price of pastelitos.
Commenters on Facebook traded nasty insults while some opponents spent more money contributing to a PAC to fight the park than it would cost them in a decade of taxes toward repaying the bonds.
Incumbent leaders made videos for Facebook: Ruano’s video was against the possible tax hike and capping costs at $5 million, while Vice Mayor Jeff Rodriguez was for a laundry list of improvements that was estimated to cost up to four times that much.
Debates also happened offline.
Candidates for the dais staked out positions and one of them, Angelo Garcia, towed a large anti-bond billboard around town. Opposition to the park didn’t help his race: He lost to incumbent Councilman Carlos Alvarez.
The pro-park renovation side enlisted children to campaign at the Mary Collins Community Center early voting site; they also voiced robocalls to voters, who were also asked to approve the improvements “for the kids.”
The Sengra Corporation (later The Graham Companies) which developed the town, donated 42 acres along Northwest 67th Avenue south of the Palmetto Expressway to the Dade Public School System in the early 1970s, The Graham Companies said.
It was South Florida’s first school-park partnership to serve everyone in a community, a model replicated in six other cities in the county, according to the school board.
The redesign of the 31 acres would have included drainage systems; five new baseball fields; a pedestrian path with exercise stations; new batting cages; shaded areas for spectators; a concession stand and restrooms; 120 more parking spaces and new poles with LED lights.
Also, new water fountains; a practice field for the Miami Lakes Optimist Football program and four new basketball courts.
The town created a portal where residents could calculate their annual tax increase, which officials estimated would range from $60 - $144.
Ruano said even though the bond referendum was defeated, she still wants to see an improved park.
“I would have supported $5 million and a couple of add-ons,” Ruano said. “I think if we all believe in it, we’re not going to be fighting each other.
“Bottom line, I’ve always wanted to renovate the park but at a lower amount,” Ruano said. “And I guess that’s what the residents wanted as well.”
She hopes everyone who became so motivated on the issue will “come together and help make a better park. I know that they will, this [cost of improvements] number was just too high. The kids deserve to have a safe environment in which to play.”