Curious George Sails the River of Red


That's what you, as an average Fort Lauderdale resident, paid in property taxes in 2003. You shelled out $116 more than residents of Miami and Jacksonville, $187 more than citizens of Tampa and Orlando, and $321 more than inhabitants of St. Petersburg. And that was before city commissioners slammed you with a 24 percent tax hike in September 2004.

You, dear Fort Lauderdalian, live in the most heavily taxed big city in Florida. And, too bad, you also happen to dwell in the most debt-ridden burg in the Sunshine State. At its financial nadir 18 months ago, Fort Lauderdale was in the hole $21 million. Never mind that new condominium towers were rising like mushrooms after a spring rain, that developers had little trouble selling one-bedroom places for $300,000, and that the once-neglected downtown was suddenly the most desirable real estate in Broward County.

Your city is broke, sucker.

And, despite the building boom, things aren't likely to improve anytime soon.

So go ahead. Spread the blame around.

There's former City Manager Floyd T. Johnson, who left in September 2003 after virtually ignoring rising deficits for years. Then there's former Finance Director Terry Sharp, who departed in summer 2004. When everyone realized the city was swimming in debt, Sharp simply replied, "Oops!" Then there are the politicos. Mayor Jim Naugle and political rival Tim Smith battled and bickered as the city's budget problem turned into a catastrophe.

All the while, incompetence flourished in America's Venice. Lax oversight allowed discrimination cases to cost the city $2 million in jury verdicts in two years. Excessive pension plans and high salaries sapped 75 percent of the city's revenue. An overgenerous health insurance program for municipal workers covered even Viagra prescriptions.

City commissioners have pointed fingers. They've grandstanded. Heads have rolled. Changes have been promised.

And still, three city managers later, Fort Lauderdale continues to spill red ink. Today, it's $13.4 million in debt. Assuming services are cut back to a minimum and you keep paying the highest taxes in Florida, this watery way station should be out of the red in three years, maybe more. That's also assuming the city's newest, relatively inexperienced city manager, George Gretsas, doesn't screw up anything further.

Outraged? You should be.

Right or wrong, stories about Fort Lauderdale's budget crisis seem to begin with Floyd Johnson, a former city manager and Marine Corps captain who had a reputation for establishing rapport with his underlings the way a general builds trust with his troops. A native of Richmond, Virginia, Johnson came to Broward in 1976 as an assistant county administrator after serving as a special assistant to the mayor of Jacksonville. In 1982, Johnson made history when the commission appointed him the first African-American county administrator. Back then, Broward was still considered the sticks -- a predominantly white county of roughly 1 million people.

For four and a half years, Johnson earned $88,200 as the county's top public official. He oversaw roughly $1.2 billion in capital improvements and the expansion of the county workforce from 1,210 to 7,706. Those accomplishments earned him the nickname "Magic Johnson."

But even in the '80s, problems hinted at Johnson's inability to manage the public's money. The new main library on Andrews Avenue cost taxpayers $42 million, twice what the manager had estimated. The $47 million county jail opened late and over budget. Property taxes rose 7.8 percent from 1982 to 1987.

None of those blunders cost Johnson his job. But then in late 1987, Johnson resigned after the County Commission censured his aviation director, Tim Campbell, for not getting commission approval before bringing a runway-expansion plan for Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport to the Federal Aviation Administration. "The issue of loyalty is a real one with me," he told the Sun-Sentinel at the time.

Johnson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, then took a job as Broward County's top social services administrator before becoming city manager of Richmond, California, a San Francisco suburb, in 1994. Only three years later, the commission in Richmond asked for Johnson's resignation after he consistently failed to respond to their directions. "He didn't leave us in financial ruin," council member Richard L. Griffin says, "but he left under questionable circumstances."

That didn't prevent Fort Lauderdale from bringing Johnson back to Broward. In 1998, soon after the commission hired him for its top administrative job, the city went on a spending spree. Parks were created, buildings refurbished, services expanded.

"Johnson didn't balance his checkbook," Mayor Naugle says. "He was asleep at the switch." But that's an oversimplification -- or a way to duck blame for the 14-year mayor. The spending problem predated Johnson. During the four years prior to the manager's arrival in Fort Lauderdale, the city spent $65 million more than it received in revenue. In a memo dated July 14, 2000, Johnson told the commissioners that burgeoning financial problems needed attention. We need to be "more foresighted and strategic in our financial planning," Johnson warned.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson