Small Florida City In Deep Financial Trouble

Jun 3, 2016
Originally published on June 3, 2016 8:03 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Things are really messed up in Opa-locka. It is a small city just north of Miami, and in such deep financial trouble that Florida's governor has taken control of its finances. Plus, it has a long history of corruption. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, city leaders are the targets of two investigations, one state and one federal.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Even by Florida standards, Opa-locka is an outlandish place. Start with the architecture - aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss developed the city in the 1920s with a theme straight out of the "Arabian Nights." Nearly a century later, it still has the largest collection of Moorish Revival architecture in the Western hemisphere. Opa-locka's city hall is a fanciful construction with cupolas and minarets. Dwayne Manuel grew up there.

DWAYNE MANUEL: Opa-locka has been known for its beautiful architecture, its wonderful people back in the '90s. So Opa-locka was a very vibrant city.

ALLEN: It's never been a wealthy place. The median household income in Opa-locka is less than $20,000 a year. And in recent years, along with poverty, the city has struggled with allegations of corruption. Opa-locka's mayor, Myra Taylor, was charged with tax fraud and removed from office a decade ago. After completing probation, she was reelected in 2010. Now, Mayor Taylor and her husband, a minister, are once again targets of a federal investigation. At a city commission meeting this week, Taylor offered a prayer for a commissioner who wasn't there.

MYRA TAYLOR: We ask you this night to look on the Pinder family. We miss him so much.

ALLEN: Last week, Opa-locka Commissioner Terence Pinder slammed his SUV into a tree and died in an apparent suicide. He was due to turn itself into the state to face bribery charges the following day. Along with the state investigation, for months federal authorities have been scrutinizing the city. In March, FBI agents descended on Opa-locka's Moorish city hall and carted away computers and boxes of records. Steve Shiver worked briefly as Opa-locka's city manager last year. As soon as he got there, he says, he saw the city's finances were a mess and top officials were engaged in improper activities.

STEVE SHIVER: It had been going on since day one. The mayor and her husband - they call him the bishop - met with me to essentially tell me how to communicate, how it's done in Opa-locka. And that was a quote.

ALLEN: In putting together a budget, Shiver says it became apparent that Opa-locka couldn't pay its bills and was on the verge of bankruptcy. In October, he sent a letter to Florida's governor asking him to intervene and to declare the city in a state of emergency. Shiver was fired. And for months, despite calls from newspaper editorial boards and officials in Miami-Dade County, the governor didn't act until this week.

On Wednesday, Governor Rick Scott signed an order declaring a financial emergency in Opa-locka. He's appointing a special board that will take control of the city's finances. Mayor Taylor said she welcomes it.

TAYLOR: Sometimes it's difficult for a person to pull themself out in a reasonable amount of time without help. If you're in a hole, there has to be someone up there to pull you out.

ALLEN: The governor's order effectively strips Taylor and other members of Opa-locka's city commission of most of their authority. In a series of articles, the Miami Herald has detailed accusations from contractors who say top officials solicited bribes and kickbacks in exchange for city contracts and even routine permits. But Mayor Taylor denies that those allegations are connected in any way with the city's dire financial condition.

TAYLOR: No, it's not. It's not really. It is not. What we're doing now is finance. All of that other stuff, that's a whole other story altogether.

ALLEN: Now, Opa-locka's troubled finances are in the hands of the state. And the city's top officials are waiting to hear from state and federal investigators. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.