Tamarac's first improvement district close to abolishment

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Lisa J. Huriash

Published February 5, 2015

TAMARAC -- The city commission voted Wednesday to take steps toward abolishing a neighborhood improvement district in the Woodlands. 


The plan was to give an upscale neighborhood control of its own destiny.

But after more than four years of lawsuits and community angst, the Woodlands Neighborhood Improvement District never got off the ground.

On Wednesday morning, the city commission voted 4-1 to start the process of abolishing it for good.

"The community said they wanted to do something," said Mayor Harry Dressler. "Four years later, it's who's on first, I don't know who's on second and what's on third. ... Is it frustrating? Just a tad. Here we are, we are not only no more advanced, we are moving ... backward."

In June 2010, the city commission approved creating an independent taxing agency for the Woodlands, an 890-home community off Commercial Boulevard with some of the most expensive real estate in Tamarac.

The purpose of the special district was to allow residents to tax themselves to pay for neighborhood improvements, including a security gate and beautification projects. The district would give residents the power to the property tax $2 for every $1,000 of a home's taxable value, up to $500 total.

It was envisioned as a model for the rest of Tamarac.

"I held it up as a poster child, never as a guinea pig," said Vice Mayor Pam Bushnell.

But no tax was ever levied because the district isn't functioning the way it's supposed to.

On Wednesday, the city commission was expected to vote on whether to take over the board, at the request of the Woodlands. The plan was to appoint the commissioners as the board, create a seven-member advisory board to suggest how the district operates, and hold a referendum to decide if the majority of residents even want the improvement district.

But Commissioner Michelle Gomez, who lives in the Woodlands, unsuccessfully appealed to her colleagues to delay the matter instead. She wanted time so both she and the city's paid lobbyists, could appeal to legislators to change state law.

Gomez partially blames the district's failure on the controversy about who is allowed to vote. Currently, state law allows only registered voters get a vote in how much money people in the district get taxed and how that money is spent.

But she said snowbirds are then disenfranchised because they aren't registered Florida voters and don't get a say. Some residents can't vote, but most renters can.

And that problem, she said, has been part of the reason the district never got off the ground.

Although the consensus at a workshop Monday was to delay the issue, commissioners decided instead Wednesday to walk away from it. On Wednesday, Gomez was outvoted by her colleagues who voted to draft a resolution to dissolve the improvement district and bring it back later for a final vote.

Michael DeLemma, who sits on the improvement district's advisory board, said only a few people don't want the district. "There's a small group of residents who don't want improvements because they don't want to pay for anything," he said. "Unfortunately the loud ones get heard sometimes. The majority want change and they are willing to pay for it. We need itů we need improvements."

Some residents are thrilled with the decision.

"I am the most happy camper," said resident Leonard Hixon. "They tried to cram this down our throats without asking if we wanted it or not."  

"We want to end it, relieve us of this misery," said Hixon.

Hixon was one of two residents who had filed complaints with the state's election division; both complaints were dismissed. The other resident also filed a lawsuit in Broward circuit court saying the special taxing district violated the homeowners' rights. That was also dismissed.

Hixon, who spearheaded a petition drive with 555 signatures opposing the district's creation, said he wasn't alone in his wish to end the district.

"Nobody wants to pay higher taxes unnecessarily," Hixon said.

The district was created in part because some Woodlands homeowners weren't paying association dues. With the fees levied on the tax bill, there was no way to avoid payment, Gomez said.

But the district hasn't gone as planned, and it might be because of lack of direction.

The city gave the district permission to form and wanted it to hit the ground running, but "no one even knew where to find their shoes," Gomez said.

At a city workshop Monday, Dressler said the city shouldn't spend any more time or money on this issue.

"I don't believe this is the city's responsibility," Dressler said.

Gomez argued the city has invested hours and thousands of dollars on other projects ranging from Mainlands, parks, and the downtown Tamarac Village plan. Now Woodlands needs help.
"There is an opportunity to fix this," she said.

After Wednesday's commission meeting, Gomez said she still believes the district has potential.

"There are communities that want it, but they are waiting to see how it goes in the Woodlands," Gomez said. "They don't have a model to emulate."

She said she is hopeful that it's not over yet, and that Woodlands residents who want the district to remain intact will come to future meetings to ask the commission not to dissolve it.

"I am disappointed," she said about Wednesday's action. "We would like the community to make the decision. A motion to repeal that is not letting the community make that decision."

After Wednesday's meeting, Dressler said the city spent $100,000 to defend lawsuits from unhappy residents, the commission never intended to become a board of directors, and he didn't like the idea of asking the state to change laws about who can vote in an improvement district.
"There is no end to the dysfunction of this [district] concept. ... Enough. There are four of us who said enough."