Government

"We Don't Want This": Westchester Residents Resist Miami-Dade Commissioner's Push for Incorporation

Last November, Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto proposed the creation of a Municipal Advisory Committee (MAC) to study the feasibility of incorporating Westchester.
Last November, Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto proposed the creation of a Municipal Advisory Committee (MAC) to study the feasibility of incorporating Westchester. Photos via Save Westchester — No New Taxes!, Miami-Dade County
Miami is now reportedly the most expensive housing market in the United States, but 12 miles southwest in unincorporated Miami-Dade County, Westchester is one of the only remaining solidly middle-class suburbs in the region. Abuelos come here to retire, and young families invest in single-family homes with low property tax bills thanks to the lack of a city government. Westchester even has its own charming landmarks, including Arbetter's Hot Dogs, Bird Bowl, and Tropical Park.

But residents say their little Mayberry is under attack, as their district's county commissioner is attempting to incorporate Westchester as a municipality and, to add insult to injury, has stated in no uncertain terms how little he cares about his constituents' input.

"I don’t give a shit about what people here might think," Miami-Dade County Commissioner Javier Souto told residents who objected to the idea of incorporation at a community meeting on February 10. He later told them: "Calladito te ves más bonito," a common expression often used to scold children or patronize women that translates to "you look prettier when you're quiet."   Their argument? Don't ruin a good thing, and definitely don't raise their taxes. But, after their elected representative essentially stuck his fingers in his ears, some residents tell New Times they're now feeling "betrayed" and "disrespected." 

"We don't want this and have never wanted this. We feel betrayed by Souto and we distrust him completely," says Jose Sanchez-Gronlier, who has lived in Westchester for the past 37 years. "This is the kind of thing that would make a lot of money but destroy our quality of life. In a very disrespectful manner, Javier Souto, who's supposed to represent us, is representing outsiders with a lot of money against us and against our interests."

Westchester is considered the area east of the Turnpike, west of the Palmetto Expressway, south of the Tamiami Trail, and north of Bird Road. But Souto's proposed borders for the City of Westchester will stretch further south to SW 56th Street, enveloping portions of unincorporated Olympia Heights.

According to U.S. Census data, the median household income in Westchester was $55,716 in 2019, and 23 percent of the area's population was 65 years and older. The homeownership rate in Westchester is 68 percent, more than double that of the City of Miami, where 30 percent of households own their own home. (Among Westchester's homeowners is the family of erstwhile cocaine cowboy Salvador Magluta.)

Souto, who did not respond to New Times' requests for comment via phone and email, has represented District 10 — which encompasses parts of Westchester, Kendall, and Fontainebleau — on the county commission for nearly 30 years. This November, he'll step down from his seat owing to term limits. But the career politician, who resides on SW 115th Avenue near Tamiami Park in Westchester, isn't ready to resign from shaping local politics just yet.

Last November, Souto proposed the creation of a Municipal Advisory Committee (MAC) to study the feasibility of incorporating Westchester. The commission approved the proposal, despite a county law that requires "no less than 20 percent of electors" in the area to sign a petition supporting incorporation.

For Sanchez-Gronlier, waiving the petition requirement signaled that neither Souto nor the commission cares whether Westchester residents want to be incorporated.

"We were asking Souto why he waived our consent," he says. "Why was he being nontransparent?"

But residents refuse to be silenced.

More than 615 people have signed an online petition to "Keep WESTCHESTER UNINCORPORATED!" Warning that incorporation "would be a disaster for our personal finances,"  the petition states that "[f]or decades Westchester has been an unincorporated area and we are doing well. Let's keep it that way and once again say NO to the incorporation!"

On Facebook, 400 people have joined the Save Westchester — No New Taxes! group, which debuted in early February. They use the platform to voice concerns, plot strategy, and share reconnaissance of a pro-incorporation political action committee, Friends of Tropical Park, which began collecting donations late last year from a cast of notable players.

Of the $47,000 raised between December 2021 and January 2022, $34,000 came from developers, real estate companies, and construction contractors, according to a campaign-finance report attached at the end of this article.

Four of the major donor companies — G-T Construction Group; Aqualand Development LTD; Lasso Partners, LLC; and Miami Hospitality International, Inc. — are run by or associated with Ralph Garcia-Toledo, onetime chauffeur and campaign chairman for former Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Giménez. During Giménez's time in office (2011-2020), Garcia-Toledo's companies received a trove of county construction contracts.

Tridente Strategies — the public affairs company of Jesse Manzano-Plaza, another former employee on Giménez's campaign — donated $2,000 to Friends of Tropical Park in December. Manzano-Plaza and Garcia-Toledo both at one time worked for Genting, the company behind a controversial monorail project to link Miami and Miami Beach that came under scrutiny in 2018 after Giménez and others traveled to China to meet with Genting and used burner phones to seemingly circumvent Florida public-records laws. Both men are listed as directors for Miami Hospitality International, Inc., a company that donated $1,000 to Friends of Tropical Park.

Other donors include Magnum Construction Management, the contractor partially responsible for the 2018 fatal Florida International University bridge collapse, and Kendall Associates I, LLLP, an affiliate of developer GL Homes. Kendall Associates I is the entity that's building 550 homes on the site of the disused Calusa Country Club in West Kendall, a development that has drawn intense opposition from residents, who are suing the county in civil court for pushing it through.

This month, flyers paid for by Friends of Tropical Park stated that incorporating Westchester will not increase taxes — a sentiment Souto has echoed.

"If we become a city, a town, a village, if we incorporate, I believe we don't have to increase our taxes. The main services for Westchester could be contracted from the County (Police, Fire Solid Waste, etc.) like other cities do, so we will pay the County to administer them and improve them. Actually, these services will be better," Souto wrote in a January 31 letter to "My Dear Friends, Constituents of Westchester."

Souto further seemed to imply in his letter that the county was actually mooching off Westchester residents.

"We are Unincorporated, we are surrounded by small poor cities.... We are rich. Westchester is rich," he wrote. "Westchester is a powerful, solid, historical and rich community, with a Tax Roll of five and half Billion dollars ($5.5 billion).... Westchester is a DONOR community for Miami-Dade County. We produce more money than we use, and these monies are used by the County's administration to take care of other areas of Miami-Dade County. These monies, in my opinion, should stay here, to keep improving our community of Westchester. These are our hard-earned monies."

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa told Souto in a public meeting that residents should know that taxes may go up if Westchester becomes a municipality.

"Obviously taxes will go up," says Nancy Rodriguez, who moved to Westchester three years ago from the Village of Palmetto Bay, which was incorporated in 2002. "If you're going to improve the city, where are you gonna get the money from? In Palmetto Bay, taxes went up every two years."

Sanchez-Gronliner agrees.

"They will nickel and dime us with every fee, fine, and code violation they can find," he says. "We would have all kinds of city departments, employees, and bureaucrats sucking our money every way they can."

Once Souto appoints volunteers to the Westchester MAC, the group can begin its feasibility study, a process that can take years. When Biscayne Gardens attempted incorporation, its MAC began meeting in 2004 but the issue didn't appear before voters until the special election last November, which cost the county nearly $100,000. The incorporation proposal required a majority vote but was overwhelmingly rejected when fewer than 600 of the roughly18,000 registered voters in the potential municipality voted in favor of incorporating. 

The last municipality incorporated in Miami-Dade was Cutler Bay in 2005. If Souto is successful, Westchester will be the county's 35th municipality.

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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos