Annexation Vexation

The plan to bring Broward County's poor areas into the fold is full of holes

After talking for two hours with a reporter, he stops long enough to sell a ten-cent Sweet 'n Sour Pop to a barber from the shop next door. "I've seen a lot of good people here, and there are still a lot of good people now," Howard says. "I lay awake a lot of nights thinking about how to motivate myself to make my business prosper."

Now and then Howard gets a request for a $2 smoked sausage on a bun, which he heats in a toaster oven, careful to keep the smudged glass-and-metal door from falling off. But most of the action is in the back of the shop, where old friends cluster around a homemade plywood checkerboard for hours on end. Players trade boastful banter over an old TV's blare of Judge Judy or Matlock as they slap down the checkers. But checkers games don't make money. "Sometimes you break even," Howard says, "but not all the time."

Last year taxes on his house, now assessed at $33,920, reached $1305. "It seems like they don't know when to quit with [tax hikes]," Howard says, shaking his head. Every month it's a strain to come up with the $400 rent for his store and the $700 mortgage payment on his house. And so three or four times a week, Howard climbs into a battered, rust-streaked white pickup that pulls a trailer with "Roney Howard Lawn Service" hand-painted on the side. He drives all over the county for $25 to $50 per job, depending on the size of the yard; it has to be small enough for him to finish mowing before the full heat of the day hits. It's not the best way to spend a South Florida morning, but Howard has little choice. "I'm struggling now," he says. "I'm struggling, trying to survive."

Fort Lauderdale mayor Jim Naugle doesn’t want to burden his city’s taxpayers
Colby Katz
Fort Lauderdale mayor Jim Naugle doesn’t want to burden his city’s taxpayers

When officials fused northern Dade and southern Palm Beach counties in 1915 to form a new county and named it for former Florida governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, its only incorporated cities were Dania, Pompano, and Fort Lauderdale, all on the coast. By 1929 four more small municipalities -- Deerfield, Davie, Hollywood, and Floranada (later renamed Oakland Park) -- had formed. The number remained constant until after World War II. Between 1945 and 1970, as new homes sprang up miles inland, Broward's population increased sevenfold. Developers who saw an advantage to independence in setting zoning rules, garbage fees, and other regulations, incorporated their own fiefdoms. Thus Plantation was born in 1953, Lauderhill in 1959, and Lauderdale Lakes in 1961.

In the ensuing years, some cities expanded by annexing commercial areas, which require comparatively few services for the taxes they pay. In 1963 Plantation moved its eastern boundary out a mile, taking in both the commercial strip of U.S. Highway 441 and a square mile of residences that lay between Davie Boulevard and Sunrise Boulevard. That's the annexation about which residents in census tracts 411 and 413 howl the loudest today, claiming that Plantation "stole" their turf. Combined with the businesses along 441, the still-unincorporated neighborhoods might have been ripe for annexation, because commercial areas generally pay more in taxes than they collect in services like garbage pickup and police protection. Without the U.S. Highway 441 strip, central county residents -- who pay less in property taxes on inexpensive homes than their more affluent neighbors -- would likely drain city coffers.

County and legislative leaders, seeking to bring some order to the process, began to discourage ragtag incorporations after authoring a county charter in 1974. In 1976 County Administrator Lex Hester aggressively pushed a plan to establish a unified annexation policy. He held a series of meetings with various cities' officials and ordered county staff to work out recommendations for future annexations. But when he unveiled the scheme before the state legislators representing Broward, many unincorporated residents balked. The recommended annexations would have caused their then-low tax rates to increase to the level of the cities'. In the ensuing uproar, Hester lost his job.

Howard Forman (now county clerk of courts) was elected to the county commission just in time to watch the Hester-plan debacle. A decade later, knowing the tax crunch was still coming, Forman and his colleagues requested that county staff spend six months working out a phased annexation blueprint to move 30 square miles of unincorporated Broward into cities. "We came up with a plan that was acceptable to the cities and to the county," says Cynthia Chambers, director of the county's Planning Services Division, who helped write the multiphase plan.

The first phase dealt only with supposedly uncontroversial annexations, where only one city wanted an area and was willing to annex it. Then Forman brought the annexation blueprint to the legislative delegation. "I'd say it took all of about 60 seconds, and they shot it down at the first public hearing -- literally," Chambers says.

Instead Broward's state legislators suggested county staff assemble a new proposal. The new scheme was rejected just as quickly. And those were the uncontroversial proposals. The decision-makers never even discussed poor residential areas like census tracts 411 and 413, Chambers says.

In the mid-1990s, when Fort Lauderdale picked up the lucrative commercial areas of Cypress Creek and Marina Mile roads, two things happened. Then-county administrator Jack Osterholt pushed through a massive program of improvements in unincorporated areas, trying to tempt cities to take them; and Broward's state legislators, fed up with piecemeal annexation bills, refused to consider such measures in 1996. Instead the legislators set up an ad hoc committee chaired by then-state senator Jack Tobin that condemned cherry-picking and set a 2010 deadline for incorporation of the entire county.

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