By Michael E. Miller
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But that recommendation didn't become law. The next year legislators approved a measure some thought would ease the process of annexation by ending a requirement for a public vote in a city that was considering gobbling up neighboring property. But that move only shifted disputes from the local voting booth to the legislative committee.
The problems with this chaotic approach to annexation became painfully clear in 1996 when Weston, which had been an enormous source of county tax dollars, incorporated. That's when county taxes and fees really started climbing for the remaining unincorporated area.
In an effort to spruce up the unincorporated areas and make them more palatable to cities, county commissioners recently voted to spend $500 million on neighborhood improvements by 2006. That plan, fueled by unincorporated residents' tax dollars, will pay for an expansion of the improvements that Osterholt started in 1994. About $100 million of the money is going to the central county, which includes tracts 411 and 413. In Washington Park, streets are being blocked off as workers install drainage, water, and sewer lines. Fire hydrants stand a foot higher than they should in some places, waiting to be matched with sidewalks and new pavement.
County work crews making their way from north to south in the central county will soon reach one of the oldest buildings in the area. Oscar Reid Sr., Yvonne Sumlin's father, built a house on NW Sixth Court in 1946. Reid, a trucker by trade, raised his three kids in the home and lived there until 1984, when he died. After Oscar Reid's death, his wife, Willie Mae, lived there alone.
In the mid-1980s, Tracy Sumlin, Yvonne's daughter, began dating Steven Durham, and the pair regularly joined grandmother Willie Mae and the rest of the family at the Reid house for Sunday turkey dinner. Willie Mae told the couple that when they married they were welcome to move into the house. But Steven couldn't imagine living there. He made his feelings clear when he and Tracy said their vows 12 years ago. "On the way from the church, I said, "I ain't gonna live with Grandma,'" Steven Durham recalls.
Often, as they sat around Willie Mae's kitchen table, gunfire would sound outside. Steven and Tracy would dive for the floor, but not Grandma; accustomed to it, she remained sitting and eating calmly as they begged her to lie down. The gunfire wasn't anything personal. Grandma Reid was a neighborhood institution, and the drug dealers doing the shooting would sometimes drop by the next day to apologize for the noise.
The area was unique, Steven recalls. "In the '80s you could still hear roosters crowing every morning," he says. "There were some people over here that had chickens and goats."
Sensing that changes for the better were coming, Tracy and Steven bought Willie Mae Reid's rundown house for $51,000 after her death a decade ago. Aside from a fresh coat of paint, the exterior looks as it always has. But Steven tore out a maze of interior walls to create several large rooms, redid the bathroom with a large new marble bathtub, and replaced the old wood floor with white tile. "And we were hoping some of our neighbors would renovate while we were renovating," Tracy says with a chuckle. Indeed, during the last decade, a few young professionals have moved into the area and built new houses, and children have remodeled their parents' old homes.
Now the gunplay has stopped, and the rates of other crimes such as robbery, burglary, and car theft have fallen off by two-thirds. Steven credits stepped-up police patrols for the change; undercover Broward Sheriff's Office deputies even stopped him on his way home from work to question him about drugs. But he didn't really mind, he says. The cleanup was worth it. "Now I don't think anything about walking four or five blocks to visit my friends," he says.
In a few years, sidewalks will run beside freshly paved streets. Cities should have no reason to straight-arm these neighborhoods any longer, the Durhams say. "I want our neighborhoods to look just as beautiful as Plantation's," Tracy says, "and there's no reason why they can't."
Eugene Franklin, president of the Washington Park Homeowners Association, welcomes the improvements. But he doesn't believe they will entice Fort Lauderdale or any other city to annex the neighborhood anytime soon. The problem, Franklin says, is based in residents' misunderstanding of why their taxes are rising and county officials' ignorance of the area. "We don't understand what wasting water means. We don't understand what recycling means. We don't understand what tax-exempt properties are. We don't understand what vacant houses do -- besides looking ugly, providing holes for crack addicts and prostitutes. But the people that do don't live here."
Franklin blames former county leaders for not working out a unified annexation policy that links tax-rich commercial areas with poorer residential neighborhoods. That should have been done years ago. "It wasn't right then; it's not right now," Franklin says, thumping a table to emphasize his frustration.
One of the issues that makes tracts 411 and 413 a hard pill to swallow for the cities that surround it -- Fort Lauderdale, Plantation, Lauderhill, and Lauderdale Lakes -- is the large number of churches, which are tax exempt. Most, such as Triumph the Church and Kingdom of God in Christ or the Church of God by Faith, are small storefronts for obscure denominations. Together these parcels make up more than a third of all property in the area, according to a 1998 study sponsored by the county. Thus the cost of services to the area is likely to outstrip tax revenues.