Letter to the Herald: Post Election - Facts about Finances

Dear Editor:

Now that the campaign season has ended, we are beginning to see the “true” condition of our City’s finances and the “true” prospects for its future. 

One of the many legacies that the Kerdyk, Withers, Cabrera, Anderson and Slesnick commission left in place  for its constituents is a stable financial situation with good prospects for the future – despite the challenging financial recession of the past four years.  In the May 12th edition of the Miami Herald Neighbors the headline reads:  “City’s financial health more robust this year.”  The article goes on to state that “Coral Gables is on track in collecting its revenues and has spent less than city officials had budgeted…Meanwhile, the city beefed up its reserves to $6.5 million from $4.5 million last year.”  On the same day, the Miami Today’s front page added this good, and predictable, news:  “Miami-Dade’s 2011 property values are expected to show the market has hit bottom already on single-family and condo properties, [County Property Appraiser] Garcia said, and in some cities they’re starting to climb.  These are mostly, Miami-Dade’s most affluent areas, he said, citing Coral Gables…”  Additionally, two weeks after the municipal election, the Herald Neighbors revealed the details of a proposed debt increase of $22 million to fund 17 projects of a “neighborhood renaissance” plan which in most part had nothing to do with “deferred maintenance.” 

In fact, little attention has been given to the capitol projects which were authorized and funded by the last Commission (much of which was achieved by procuring County and State funding support) and are either in progress or about to begin.  These include:  the improvements and repair to the Police/Fire headquarters building ($3.5 million) and the sanitary sewer system ($6 million); street resurfacing and traffic calming installations ($800,000); the dredging of the Coral Gables Canal ($4.5 million); the repair and restoration of the historic North Gables Water Tower ($200,000); the restoration of the Miracle Theater’s historic marquee ($250,000); the on-going construction of the Ponce de Leon Boulevard median ($1.5 million) and the recently begun installation of the Segovia Street median ($850,000).   Those project budgets total approximately $17.5 million of important investments that are already “on the books” and aimed at completion in the foreseeable future. 

No matter what the political rhetoric was in the past, the time has come to recognize the true facts of our City’s financial status (challenged but full of promise) and how much money has been raised and dedicated toward continuing to improve our quality of life.
 

Don Slesnick
 

Letter to the Herald: Post Election - An International City

Dear Editor:

Upon reading last Sunday’s article about the Mayor’s “getting used to his new job”, I fully support his commitment to keeping Coral Gables a well-recognized center of international trade, banking and diplomacy.  I am sure that the use of the word “re-internationalize” was unintended as it does not reflect the current dynamic global status of our City. 

Despite our relatively small size compared to some Florida cities; Coral Gables has an enviable standing in the world of international commerce – due to the safe, inviting and sophisticated character of our community which makes it a perfect place to hold conferences and house diplomats.  This city’s international standing has been in the making since its very inception and has blossomed in the last twenty-five years. Before me, Mayors Thomson, Corrigan and Valdes-Fauli have all contributed much to spreading the name “Coral Gables” across the globe. 

During the past ten years we have accomplished many things in the international arena, such as:  (1) increased the number of foreign Consulates located in our city [to include the addition of one of the major European nations – Italy]; (2) increased the number of Consul Generals living in the Gables [the latest addition being the representative of the Netherlands]; (3) attracted the Miami Regional Office of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions to locate in our business district; (4) participated in programming of the acclaimed University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy; (5) facilitated the construction of the Bacardi world-wide headquarters building in our downtown (one of South Florida’s premier international businesses); (6) continued to maintain the living quarters for the Commander of the U.S. Southern Command; (7) secured the “Latin American campus” of the Kellogg Executive MBA program of Northwestern University in Coral Gables; and, (8) gained recognition as the “Best Sister City Program in the Nation” for our size community. 

Many of us are ready, willing and able to assist the Mayor in continuing Coral Gables’ participation as a vital component of South Florida’s “Gateway” role in the Western Hemisphere.

Don Slesnick

Coral Gables News: "Mayor Don Slesnick our choice for re-election"

 

In just a few days, voters will have the opportunity to choose from three candidates for Mayor of Coral Gables.
 
The incumbent, Mayor Don Slesnick, an attorney/mediator by profession and Coral Gables resident since 1972, was first elected in 2001 and is now seeking his fifth and final term allowable under the term-limits ordinance.
 
The challengers, both seeking elected office for the first time, are James Cason, a retired diplomat who has resided in Coral Gables since 2008, and Tom Korge, a business attorney and former chair of Coral Gables' Pension Board, who has resided in the Gables since 1990.
 
With no record of past accomplishments as elected leaders, both Cason and Korge have formed their campaigns largely around negative critiques of the current administration, primarily in the area of financial matters. The primary talking points involve: lowering property taxes, fixing the employee pension system, and ensuring better financial management of the city's public-private partnership at the Biltmore Hotel.
 
PROPERTY TAXES
Let us look first at the issue of property tax rates. During the course the past decade, with Mayor Slesnick in office, we have seen property taxes go up and go down, but since 2001 have only increased by around two tenths of a mill (from 5.841 to 6.072). Currently, rates are lower than they were four years ago.

On a comparative basis, among the 35 municipalities in Miami-Dade County, Coral Gables residents enjoy the
26th lowest combined millage rate on property taxes.

Paying taxes always hurts, but relative to other communities in South Florida, Coral Gables residents pay a well-below-average tax rate while living in a beautiful, historic community with service levels and amenities that would be a substantial upgrade for nearly every other
of our neighboring communities.
 
The reality is, if you believe that you are paying substantial taxes in Coral Gables, it is probably because your house is worth more, in great part due to the city's ambiance and service level.
 
CITY EMPLOYEE PENSIONS
The issue of employee pensions has been a hot topic in recent media coverage, but it is not a new issue and it is not one that can or should be solved with the stroke of a pen. Fixing pension problems that were set into motion seven decades ago (1939) is a very emotional and difficult process for every- one involved.
 
Grandstanding or sounding as though the issue could be solved in a "tough guy" fashion only will hurt the process, and could result in the kind of ugly, divisive upheaval that we're seeing in other U.S. communities. That is not what we want for Coral Gables.
This publication credits Mayor Slesnick for first raising the looming pension issue many years ago, before it was viewed broadly and accepted as a source of concern for state and local governments. He advocated for cooperative change at a time when the urgency of these issues was not so apparent to all parties.
 
During the mayor's term, not one new pension benefit has been added; rather everything that has been done by the city commission has lowered the projected costs of the retirement system. During the past five years, the city reached agreements with its employee unions to institute 5 percent employee contributions.
 
Last fall major changes were made to the general employee's plan, changes which are now being challenged and litigated. The mayor voted "no" on that proposal and supported one that would have been accepted by the employees.
 
PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS
Consider the issue of ensuring better financial management of the city's public-private partner- ships, which arose related to the lease agreement that the city has with the operators/managers of the city-owned Biltmore Hotel. Specifically, the tenant operator has failed to make rental payments and the city has come under fire for poor oversight and enforcement o f the agreement.
 
What is not clear is whether there was any real opportunity to enforce or collect on this rent money from a struggling tenant in a severe recession. While it may be tempting for some to argue for vigorous enforcement of the lease agreement, the reality is that the Biltmore property is a financially demanding historic structure, and the hotel/tourism industry has seen severe disruptions during the first decade of the 21st Century.
 
Thus, the situation is far from a typical business arrangement and the city has not been presented with any realistic alternative options. The key to getting this public-private partnership back on track will be to stop the blame game and focus on developing a fair agreement that takes into account the unique requirements of this landmark, and which assigns financial responsibilities in a way that is reasonable and equitable. The city and the tenant are in the process of negotiations at this time.
 
FINANCIAL STABILITY
The bottom line is that today, even after a period marked by a severe global recession, the City of Coral Gables remains one of the best run and most livable cities in South Florida. Despite the externally driven financial challenges of the past several years, the city can boast of great economic indicators:
• A general fund reserve of $6.5 million (up 40 percent in the past year);
• Mar. 16 Standard & Poor's rating of "AA" for current debt with the assessment that the city shows "very strong to extremely strong economic indicators despite weakness in the property tax base...", and
• A gain in the invested assets of the pension plan of$50 million in just a little over a year's time (14 months).
 
When Mayor Slesnick first took office in 2001, we learned that his accessible working style and commitment to openness and dialogue, which had worked so well in his many community volunteer roles, also produced results at City Hall.
Skeptics' questions began to be answered in the early days of his first term when Mayor Slesnick formed a citizen's panel to evaluate the controversial the City Hall Annex and the closure of Biltmore Way. The panel proved effective. Its recommendations won acceptance throughout the community.
 
The city was able to move decisively to terminate the construction project, permanently re-open the street, and implement an alternate plan to accommodate City Hall expansion needs through the      less-costly acquisition of nearby properties.
 
Since that time, Mayor Slesnick earned broad public support, resulting in two unopposed reelections and a solid victory in a three-way race four years ago. During the life of his administration, the Coral Gables Commission also entered a period of progress with effective collaboration on important issues including the introduction of a building code with enforceable regulations that prohibit construction of "McMansions" and strong measures to provide buffers between commercial and residential areas.
 
Along the way, important initiatives have been led by Mayor Slesnick, while others were led by fellow commissioners, further reflecting the collaborative environment that he has worked to create at City Hall. Citizens can be proud of the civil, respectful way in which their government operates.
 
The wide range of factors and economic realities affecting Coral Gables and local communities everywhere, suggests that it will be especially important to be able to develop consensus, move fast, and act decisively during the next few years.
 
We hope you have found our endorsement of Mayor Don Slesnick helpful in deciding how to cast your vote. In any case, we encourage you to participate in shaping our community's future by voting on Apr. 12.

 

Letter to Herald: Coral Gables makes information easy to access

Jackie Bueno Sousa's Jan. 5 column, A transparent government isn't necessarily a direct one, takes issue with governments, like the city of Coral Gables, that try to provide financial and other important information to the public. In Sousa's view, Coral Gables and other governments, including the state of Florida, provide a lot of information, but do not tell citizens what's important and what they should know.

 

Click link below for full article in PDF format.

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Herald Article: Gables mayor spells it ‘a-c-t-o-r’

There were some familiar faces amid the bunch of brainiacs on stage at Actors’ Playhouse’s opening night performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Last Friday, sitting on the bleachers of a middle school gym during a spelling competition among the screwball kids, were four guest spellers you might have seen around town in their regular roles. Among them, Coral Gables Mayor Donald Slesnick and WFOR-CBS 4 meteorologist Lissette Gonzalez.

Click link below for full article in PDF format

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Mayor Honored by the Republic of China

During a reception that took place at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in downtown Coral Gables on June 28, 2010, representatives of the Republic of China (Taiwan) honored Mayor Don Slesnick with the Friend of Foreign Service Medal “in recognition of his remarkable contribution to the friendship between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the United States of America.” 

Click link below for full article in PDF format

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Mayor appointed to commission to advocate for civics education in Nation's schools

Don Slesnick, attorney and Coral Gables Mayor, has been appointed to serve on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools. Its stated objective is to develop young people’s interest and knowledge of civics, community service, politics and government; the Commission will advocate teaching an expanded civic curriculum to youth ages 13-19.Click link below for full article in PDF format

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Coral Gables Mayor Leads Prestigious Mayors Association

Mayor Donald Slesnick was sworn in Friday for his one-year term as president of the Florida League of Mayors (FLM) during the Florida League of Cities (FLC) 83rd Annual Business Meeting and Educational Conference in Orlando. 

“I am honored to have been selected by my fellow mayors to lead the League during this coming year. All cities in Florida face a challenging time of declining revenues, public resistance to taxation, a private sector economic recession and legislative attacks on the constitutional concept of Home Rule,” said Donald Slesnick, mayor, City of Coral Gables and president, Florida League of Mayors. “League members are dedicated to continuing our cooperative efforts to craft solutions which will insure that constituents can always count on good local governance and outstanding municipal services.”

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