Miami’s Community Newspapers: “Crowds flock to seventh annual Bird Day activities at Tropical Audubon Society”

The 2.2 near-native acres that comprise Tropical Audubon Society and its Steinberg Nature Center campus were alive with children’s animated chatter mingled with birdsong on Saturday, Feb. 9, when nearly 375 children, parents and dignitaries alighted at the seventh annual Bird Day.

The enriching, record-breaking event featured interactive games, crafting and prizes, and enabled participants of every age to identify birds and experience a microscopic view of the colorful world of feathers.

Bird Day celebrates the annual northbound “flight” of nearly 350 species of migratory birds stopping in South Florida on their return to North America from the Caribbean, South America and Mexico. To help welcome our feathered friends, attendees learned how to create an attractive “rest stop” in their own yards and got tutored by TAS Field Trip Coordinator Brian Rapoza on how to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count weekend, Feb. 15-18. He encouraged bird watchers of every level to contribute to the national tally.

Lloyd Brown of Wildlife Rescue of Dade County orchestrated the release of a rehabilitated red-shouldered hawk, inviting Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava to set it free. Also present was Zoo Miami Ambassador Ron Magill, an outspoken proponent of habitat protection.

Members of The Phoebes (#BirdLikeaGirl) hosted crafting tables and led hands-on learning activities. While children painted bird houses, ate like birds and explored the nature trails that thread the site’s tropical hardwood hammock and pine rockland habitats, their parents took tours of the historic 1932 Doc Thomas House that serves as TAS headquarters.

In addition to Wildlife Rescue of Dade County, exhibitors included the Cape Florida Banding Station, Environmentally Endangered Lands Program, Girl Scouts of Tropical Florida and Pelican Harbor Seabird Station.

Title Sponsor was Leica Store Miami; co-sponsors: Audubon Florida, National Audubon, Pelican Harbor Seabird Station; community sponsors: Miami’s Community Newspapers, and Riviera Presbyterian.

Event chairs were Lewis “Brother” Milledge and Alison Enchelmaier.

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Miami Herald: “In Miami-Dade, state and local lawmakers don’t get along. Especially on MDX tolls.”

State and local lawmakers from Miami-Dade gathered over coffee and pastelitos Monday morning. That’s where the sweetness ended.

“We hope our delegation will not cut off our noses to spite our faces,” County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava said of a bill by a Miami-Dade representative that would ban spending the county’s half-percent transportation sales tax on operating new transit lines.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Bryan Avila of Hialeah, sat a few chairs away. Along with rewriting the rules for the county’s “half penny” transportation tax, his legislation would abolish the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. A majority of the toll board is appointed by the County Commission, and the county’s two senior leaders — Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commission Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson — hold two of the nine MDX seats.

“I’m not here to have a long political career,” said Avila, R-Hialeah. He then cited Miami-Dade’s stadium deals over the last 20 years in explaining how the county took its focus off transportation and ended up with a “third-rate transportation system.”

“I’m very encouraged by the fact that now we’re seeing this focus on transportation,” Avila said. “I just wish we would have had it a long time ago.”

Gimenez is trying to negotiate an end to Avila’s bill, either through a rewrite or by killing it outright. State Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., who is sponsoring a companion MDX bill, hinted at a negotiated truce.

“I’m open to listening,” Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens, said during the morning event at the county-owned Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. “I’m sure Rep. Avila is open to listening.”

The joint meeting between Miami-Dade’s local elected leaders and the county’s state delegation was billed as a way to collaborate on joint legislative priorities. Unofficially, it was a chance for restrained venting between two entities with a history of bad relations.

Local state lawmakers say they’re trying to force the changes voters want but the county has been unable to deliver. County commissioners routinely complain in public that their top foes in Tallahassee are from Miami-Dade, frustrating efforts at a united front for state funding.

“We spend so much time and effort fighting our own people,” Dennis Moss, one of the two senior members of the County Commission, said last week. “While people from other areas are working together and are bringing home the bacon … our own people are trying to undermine us.”

Moss didn’t attend Monday’s joint meeting. The session saw his fellow commissioners raise other priorities for Miami-Dade, including support for expanding Miami’s needle-exchange program, more state money to deal with septic tanks threatened by sea-level rise, and more state dollars for Miami-Dade schools and the county’s Jackson hospital system.

But the companion bills by Avila (HB 385) and Diaz (SB 898) sparked the most exchanges between the two camps. The legislation would upend much of the landscape for how the county spends money on transportation.

The legislation would dissolve the MDX, transferring control of State Road 836, the Don Shula, and three other expressways controlled by the board. Florida’s Transportation Department would take over the expressways. Tolling would cease once existing MDX debt was retired. It also would shrink a county board known as the Transportation Planning Organization from 25 seats to 19, eliminating spots for the school board and some cities on a panel that oversees federal funding for roads and transit.

The bill also would rewrite the rules for the half-percent sales tax that Miami-Dade voters approved in 2002 for transportation projects. Aimed at expanding Metrorail and doubling the county’s bus fleet, the tax was restricted to construction, vehicle purchases and operating costs for any transit system created with the new levy.

During Miami’s real estate crash in 2009, Miami-Dade commissioners voted to use the tax to subsidize routine transit operations, too, and about $95 million went into the agency’s operating budget this year. The Avila and Diaz legislation would impose stricter rules than existed after the 2002 vote by banning any use of the transportation tax for transit operations.

Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Cutler Bay, used some of his time Monday to deliver a dig at MDX’s signature project: a proposed 13-mile extension of the 836 into West Kendall. Championed by Gimenez and opposed by environmentalists and transit advocates, the $1 billion project would launch a new highway into undeveloped land west of the county’s suburbs.

“The future of this county should not include the building of more roads,” said McGhee, who is preparing to run for County Commission in 2020. He urged MDX to spend its toll reserves on new transit lines instead of on a new highway.

Gimenez regularly warns against treating transit as a silver-bullet cure to traffic, noting trains and buses are used only by a small portion of a population that mostly travels by automobile.

“Frankly, we can’t afford to have public transportation that will take you from everywhere to everywhere at this point in time,” he said Monday. “There is only one thing worse than traffic. That’s no traffic. If you have no traffic, that means your town is dead. … This town is growing, and more and more people are coming. That’s not a bad thing.”

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Miami Herald: “Miami-Dade weeks away from running out of money for firm running $2 billion sewage fix”

When more than 700,000 gallons of human waste poured into Biscayne Bay from a county pump station in Sunny Isles Beach earlier this month, the facility was under a court order to be repaired as part of a nearly $2 billion upgrade of the Miami-Dade sewage system.

The private firm managing that contract has burned through nearly $91 million in fees that were supposed to last another 10 years, and now Miami-Dade is scrambling to add another $49 million to the 2014 agreement and let AECOM continue managing the project through 2028.

“I’m not happy,” Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said during an Infrastructure Committee hearing on the proposed change to a $140 million cap on the contract, a 53 percent boost. “The increase is incredible.”

Miami-Dade residents and businesses are paying higher water fees in part to cover costs on the $1.8 billion construction project tied to a 2013 settlement of a federal suit against the county by the Environmental Protection Agency. Known as the “consent decree” program, it covers more than 80 upgrades and replacements of pipe systems, treatment plants and the kind of pump stations that failed Feb. 2, prompting temporary no-swim warnings at Haulover Beach and a nearby state park.

The county has more than 1,000 pump stations, but some of the oldest were included in the projects mandated by the consent decree approved by a federal judge in 2013 for environmental violations dating back to the 1990s. Of the 34 stations in the consent-decree program, 18 have been upgraded or replaced. Fifteen are under construction or about to be. The remaining station not yet in the program’s pipeline was the one that failed in Sunny Isles Beach.

“There is an urgency to this,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava. “We are in this because we have a failed system that we have to fix as quickly as possible.”

While the consent-decree program is one of the largest infrastructure projects in Miami-Dade, the county has only a few people directly involved with the work. Private firms are handling the construction, design and architecture, and in 2014 AECOM, a global engineering firm based in Los Angeles, won the coveted deal to oversee the project.

At the time, the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez estimated the county would need to pay AECOM $91 million at the most over 15 years, the deadline for completing the consent-decree work. “We believe that is adequate compensation over a 15-year period for the entire scope of work for this consent decree,” Bill Johnson, then the county’s sewer director, told the commission on May 20, 2014, when AECOM’s contract was approved.

But as AECOM’s staff began evaluating the work ahead, company executives quickly began pressing for more money for what they determined was a much more extensive project than forecast. Pete Hernandez, a former county administrator and Miami city manager who now serves as an AECOM vice president, said reviews in 2015 and 2016 showed the county’s early estimates were significantly low.

By 2017, the county’s forecast on construction costs for consent-decree work had soared from about $730 million to $1.1 billion. And AECOM was billing at a much faster rate than had been expected when the contract was approved in 2014.

While the $91 million was supposed to last into the next decade, Miami-Dade officials said Tuesday the county was weeks away from having no authorized funds for AECOM’s work.

“They run out of money in March, am I right?” asked Commissioner Barbara Jordan, chairwoman of the committee. “Yes, commissioner,” replied Water and Sewer director Kevin Lynskey. “In the beginning of April, we run out of money.”

While Lynskey said construction projects within the consent-decree program are costing more, the overall price hasn’t grown as quickly when adding in professional services, county overhead and other expenses. The total price tag has grown from $1.6 billion in 2013 to $1.8 billion in the county’s latest capital budget.

Lynskey has been shedding other projects in Water and Sewer’s broader construction plans, and is trying to reduce the size of the department’s other major undertaking: a state-mandated reduction in the amount of treated sewage pumped into the ocean.

Construction of all water and sewer projects is expected to cost about $12 billion. The money comes from debt borrowed against water bills paid by homes and businesses. Miami-Dade has been increasing rates in recent years and plans more increases in the years to come, Lynskey said.

New standards for sea-level rise contributed to a “modest” amount of the cost increases for the consent-decree program, Lynskey said, but the bulk came from individual projects being expanded to cover more extensive work — such as a pump station that was to be repaired instead being replaced.

Gimenez, who oversees the Water and Sewer department and appointed Lynskey last year and Johnson in 2014, made a rare committee appearance Tuesday to urge commissioners to support the change. It passed on a 3 to 2 vote, with commissioners Jean Monestime and Joe Martinez voting no. A final vote by the full commission is expected by the end of March.

“I hate to come back on this,” Gimenez told commissioners Tuesday. But with the construction tasks more extensive than forecast, he said, AECOM will be conducting far more work than expected. “The scope of the construction project is much larger than what they bid on. They should be compensated for it.”

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Miami Herald: “Booming economy? For South Florida residents, barely getting by is increasingly the norm”

Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate sits at about 3.6 percent — the lowest in a decade. An all-time high of more than 1.2 million county residents have jobs.

But for an increasing number of South Florida families, survival in the past decade has become more difficult. About 40 percent of Miami-Dade families now earn less than it costs to live here — on top of nearly 20 percent of families living below the poverty line. In Broward, 37 percent of households are working but earning too little to pay their bills, while another 13 percent live in poverty.

Those findings comes from the United Way’s latest ALICE report, a study examining household finances by state and county released Wednesday.

ALICE stands for asset-limited, income-constrained, employed. These are households where an individual has a job, earns more than the federal poverty level, but is still earning less than the basic cost of living for their county — the ALICE Threshold. All data are sourced from the U.S. government.

The newly released report is based on data current as of 2016, meaning there’s likely some margin of error.

Still, it shows that in Miami-Dade, the share of ALICE households has surged — from 33 percent in 2014 to 40 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, the share of households above the ALICE threshold declined from 46 percent to 41 percent. The share of households in poverty fell from 21 percent to 19 percent.

The bottom line: The share of South Florida households facing difficult financial choices is surging.

“We are absolutely going in the wrong direction,” said Maria Alonso, president and CEO of United Way of Miami-Dade.

The biggest culprit, she said, remains rising housing costs. Data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in the Miami metro area, consumer spending on housing has now hit nearly 38 percent of income, compared with 36 percent in 2014.

“We all know the realities — we have a high cost of living, and our affordable housing stock is limited at best,” she said. “So it makes for a continuously challenging environment for our [working] families, the ones that our economy and community depend upon.”

Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine-Cava noted that ALICE households are most likely to be renters — and the rental market in Miami-Dade, she said, has become “insane.”

“There’s a totally inadequate supply of housing to meet the need — and we’re losing more affordable housing as subsidized housing ages out and is going to market rate,” she said. “We have to be really aggressive about not just adding new housing, but not losing ground on what we already have.”

The report found that a Miami-Dade family of four with two young children would have to be earning more than $61,000 a year to afford basic necessities. The median household income in the county earned about $46,000 at the time of data collection.

Single-parent households headed by women are highly vulnerable; black and Hispanic households are far more likely to be financially stressed than white households, according to the data.

In Broward, the story is much the same. The share of ALICE households increased from 31 percent to 37 percent, while the share of households above ALICE declined from 55 percent to 50 percent. The county’s poverty rate was nearly unchanged, falling from 14 percent to 13 percent.

As of 2016, the “survival” budget for a young Broward family of four was more than $64,000 a year, while the median household income was about $54,000.

“We have lots of people back to work, and the economy is good,” said Kathleen Cannon, president and CEO of the United Way of Broward. “However, so many people, about 50 percent, are doing all the right things but cannot make ends meet. The cost of housing is so high, and wages are not keeping up.”

Many families now spend well over 50 percent of their income for housing, Cannon said.

“We have so many families who at the end of their pay period, they’re making some decision about, ‘Should I take the car or the bus?’ And if they miss a day’s wages, it spirals them right into poverty.”

The findings suggest that while some South Florida families may be transitioning out of poverty, they are still struggling to get by. And a significant share who were above the ALICE threshold are sliding back into it.


In certain Miami-Dade County neighborhoods, the combined share of financially stressed households — those in poverty or within the ALICE household — approached or reached 100 percent:

  • In the Homestead Base neighborhood, 100 percent of the households are financially stressed. The area comprises approximately 900 individuals in 145 households living near Homestead Air Reserve Base in south Miami-Dade,
  • In Opa-locka, 88 percent of households are financially stressed. The area comprises about 16,000 individuals in about 5,123 households.
  • In Medley, 88 percent of the households are financially stressed. The neighborhood comprises about 1,000 individuals in about 317 households in northwest Miami-Dade.
  • In Brownsville, in central Miami-Dade, 87 percent of households are financially stressed. The area includes about 16,000 individuals in about 5,108 households.
  • In Florida City in south Miami-Dade, 84 percent of the households are financially stressed. The area comprises about 12,000 individuals in about 2,862 households.

According to the study, black and Hispanic households are far more likely to be financially stressed than white ones:

  • Black households: 72 percent financially stressed (101,256 households)
  • Hispanic households: 61.5 percent (364,818 households)
  • Asian households: 47 percent (6,631 households)
  • Two or more-race households: 46 percent (7,037 households)
  • White households: 41 percent (56,868 households)

Among household types, those headed by a single female parent were highly likely to be living on the financial edge. About 80 percent live in poverty or at ALICE levels.

In Broward, far fewer neighborhoods suffer from high rates of financial stress. The most vulnerable were:

  • Franklin Park, comprising about 1,000 individuals in about 344 households just northwest of Fort Lauderdale: 89 percent rate.
  • Washington Park, comprising about 1,500 individuals in about 465 households just west of Fort Lauderdale: 81 percent
  • Pembroke Park, comprising about 6,500 individuals in about 2,317 households just southwest of Hollywood: 78 percent.

The racial breakdown for Broward was not immediately available.

By comparison, the overall Florida rate of financially stressed households (falling into poverty or at ALICE levels) remained mostly unchanged.

“In 2016, 45 percent of Florida’s families struggled to pay their bills and keep their heads above the fiscal waters,” Ted Granger, president of the United Way of Florida, wrote in an introduction to the report. “When I first heard this statistic, I was floored. Certainly, I knew that many Florida families were struggling. But almost half of the families in the state? Shocking!”

Even using the most conservative cost scenarios for a family’s monthly expenses for housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and necessary technology, he said, ALICE families “live on the brink of financial disaster every day.”

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Miami Herald, Nearly all the seagrass in Biscayne Bay is dead. County commissioner want to know why

The past decade has not been good for Biscayne Bay: More than 25,000 acres of seagrass meadows have vanished as Miami boomed and climate change drove seas ever higher.

In a report released last week, Miami-Dade County environmental regulators blamed chronic pollution for the massive die-off, brought on by dirty canals, increasing floodwater and leaky septic tanks in older neighborhoods. The once gin-clear bay — one of the few places on the planet inhabited by all seven species of seagrass — now has wide swaths of barren bottom, muddy water and clumps of macroaglae rolling around like tumbleweeds.

But on Tuesday, the bay enjoyed a mini love fest when county commissioners ordered not one, but two reports on how to fix problems.

“While we need to continue studying, we also need to identify solutions before there’s nothing left,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who asked for the seagrass study.

About 10 months overdue, the report suggested continuing a number of ongoing efforts, including monitoring water quality and the bay bottom. But it failed to suggest more specific fixes like identifying and dealing with sources of pollution. Clearly frustrated, Levine Cava asked county environmental chief Lee Hefty to come back in six months with more detailed recommendations for problems that have escalated in recent years.

In 2016, an alarming seagrass die-off in the Tuttle basin wiped out most of the grass in just two months and reignited scrutiny of ongoing issues, including a busier and bigger port and cooling canals at Turkey Point that continue to leak into the bay. A coral disease that started off Virginia Key in 2014 has now spread to Key West. And in November, the county issued a dire septic tank forecast. Leaky tanks have for several years been blamed for polluting the bay with nitrogen, which fuels macroalgae. But the November assessment predicted that as sea levels climb and drive up the water table, more tanks will leak.

Commissioners also voted to create a nine-member task force suggested by Commissioner Rebeca Sosa and gave it six months to draft its own report.

The task force will include Hefty, along with the county’s chief resiliency officer. Remaining members will be appointed by commissioners and include two reps from the real estate and tourism industries and two from communities with an interest in the bay. The three remaining seats will be filled by an engineer and experts in water quality and coastal management.

“Now is the moment, with today’s approval of the Biscayne Bay task force, that we will be able to get the experts to sit down and come back to us with their recommendations,” Sosa said.

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