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Can the bell be unrung? Warning signs for Key Biscayne on big projects

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NEWS ANALYSIS

Sea level rise was on the ballot in Key Biscayne, and the results of election 2022 showed major warning signs about $250 million in public works projects the barrier island is pursuing. That’s true despite Joe Rasco’s landslide 62-38 victory over Fausto Gomez, which came tethered to a staggering level of campaign spending that may have altered island politics forever. 

In a stark political contradiction, the four winning candidates — Rasco, Ed London, Oscar Sardiñas, and Fernando Vazquez — were on the losing end when it came to major ballot questions that went down to spectacular defeat.

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These conflicting signs point to both political danger for Tuesday’s winners and political opportunity for those who want to disrupt what they see as the “establishment” in Key Biscayne. 

The ballot questions were not communicated as necessary changes to move forward with expensive plans to build stormwater lines and pumps, bury power lines, and protect the coastline. That messaging came later in the campaign cycle, in response to criticism as opposed to ahead of it. That’s because the ballot proposals had attracted little attention when drafted months ago. Then, they became the focus of the Gomez campaign, which switched its messaging after a drubbing in the August primary. The defense against the Gomez campaign’s onslaught of negativity was uncoordinated, unfocused, and, at times, overly technical.

While it may be partially true that Gomez and his ally, council candidate Andy Herrera, were relying on the amendment debate to fuel a come-from-behind strategy, the dramatic rejection numbers speak for themselves and can’t be written off as a failure of messaging alone. It’s also worth noting that this was a high turnout election — 59% — and that there was very little undervote. In other words, voters did not skip the local questions and so the defeat can’t be attributed to “low information” voters. 

At base, it’s a question of very expensive projects and who pays for them. Key Biscayne has the lowest taxes in the County and voters said they want to keep it that way. The defeat of the borrowing measures may mean the village will have to plan fewer or less ambitious resilience projects, slow them down, or even look at shifting more costs into taxes and fees instead of  borrowing.  That, in turn, will make some village services and programs, the “extras” often favored by residents, harder to pay for. 

Long-term debt is often paired with long-term expenditure, such as public works, but that might not be a fit for the increasingly transient nature of Key Biscayne. Consider that only a third of the population benefit from the Homestead exemption, and that according to the U.S. Census, occupancy rates have increased markedly.  Occupancy is not the same thing as density, but it can feel the same. While there might be little risk of skyscrapers being built on the island, it feels busier and more crowded because, well, it is. And so, development and taxes are not made-up concerns, but reflect real worries.   

Condominium leaders know the investment problem well, where many associations have voted to keep rates low by leaving building reserves underfunded. There might be no disagreement that a roof needs replacing or that roads need paving. But by postponing, there is the chance that investor-owners can kick those costs to the next buyer of a unit. 

It’s a philosophy of long-term versus short-term, and there’s often no completely right or wrong answer. In the condo arena, the tragedy of Surfside led the Legislature to start requiring more reserve funding — putting even more strain on budgets. Key Biscayne may be an affluent community, but it only makes sense to expect political pushback to rising costs that are hitting many Key Biscayne condo dwellers.

A New Political Era

The other massive change is the unprecedented influx of campaign cash, consultants, and the message those new political realities send. Fundraising hit at least $220,000 this cycle, and probably more. Both Rasco and Gomez had heavy-hitter connections and the race showed it.  

It’s hard to think that any future Key Biscayne ballot question, for example, will not be met with funded campaigns. And those seeking the unpaid council seats can expect to spend far more than ever before, as well as having dark money aimed at them (and let’s be fair, for them) from the outside. Anything else would amount to unilateral disarmament.

IssueYesNo
Capital project notices44%56%
Double Debt Cap3862
Allow voters to approve debt cap exceptions4852
Land Development Rules3862
Council member primaries4852
Open Meetings6535
E-public notice 7525
Source: Miami-Dade Elections Dept


Also new is the entry of a Christian nationalist group, the CCDF, which targeted Sardiñas, the amendment questions, and school races earlier in the year. In a Miami-Dade County that has shifted rightward politically, there’s no reason to think this will not continue as 2022 recedes and the nation heads to another presidential election season.

Just six months ago, 98% of Key Biscayne residents told pollsters the village was a “good place to live.”  The number was part of a survey that showed the “Island Paradise” stood on a  rarefied plane, compared to other communities around the nation with less stellar approval ratings. 

Will those numbers repeat themselves? To believe they will, you’d have to believe that Key Biscayne is not only a physical island, but is also unmoored to the currents and trends of the age that pull and push society. 

There are seasons for everything, scripture says. One season has ended in Key Biscayne, and a new one has begun. 

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Author

  • Tony Winton

    Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.

Tony Winton
Tony Wintonmailto:[email protected]
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.
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