First there was bickering, then trust issues arose. The relationship grew bitter. Both sides lawyered up. The word "divorce'' was spoken.
This is the story of Broward County and its cities.
Relations have grown icy as the two sides engage in an unusual flurry of litigation that's sapping public resources and taxpayers' money and leading to intergovernmental gridlock.
"I think the level of trust between the cities and county is at its lowest level,'' said Broward Commissioner Stacy Ritter, a former state legislator. "At the end of the day, I think it's — as always — about money.''
Last week, a lawsuit filed against the county by 18 cities brought at least 68 Broward elected officials, plus city managers and attorneys, to a dispute meeting in Sunrise.
More than one person lamented the cost to taxpayers as local governments lock horns with each other.
"You're spending their money to fight, over there. We're spending their money to fight, over here,'' Broward Commissioner Dale Holness said to the city officials. "It's a waste of money.''
Some said they've never seen things this bad.
The county's been sued by or is in pre-lawsuit talks with 22 Broward cities in the past year over garbage-system money, a regional 911 system, funding for redevelopment, and an annexation deal gone bad. In addition, it's fighting with most of its cities over ethics and affordable housing.
"This is the most acrimonious that I remember,'' said Sue Gunzburger, a 20-year county commissioner who previously served on the Hollywood City Commission. "I think a whole lot of things have come to a head.''
Weston Mayor Dan Stermer said he believes the cities have "grown up'' over time and are more capable of fighting back against a county that operates with a "top-down approach.'' The pack of 31 cities has evolved into a more formidable force, he says, and learned to work together.
"I hope it's not acrimony,'' he said of the city-county posture, ''but a growing respect for each other.''
Stermer said the county behaves like "a parent going to tell our children, the cities, what to do and how to do it.''
The discord — serious disagreements over tens of millions of dollars — weighs on the minds of some county commissioners when cities come asking for grants or approvals.
At her seat on the dais, Ritter has a list of the cities that are suing the county. On her office wall, she said, she has a framed sheet of paper listing the cities that are suing and those that aren't.
"I think about it a lot,'' said Ritter. "I look at the [County Commission] agenda on Tuesday and I see which cities are asking for what. It hasn't affected my vote on most of them, but it has on a couple.''
Gunzburger said she thinks about it as well. The head-to-head reminds her of her days as a therapist.
"When you're really angry and you have all these negative feelings, you can't hear what the other person is saying,'' she said, "and I think that's part of the problem.''
A synopsis of the issues:
• Eighteen cities are suing Broward County over the recently disbanded countywide garbage system. The cities argue that some $150 million in assets should now be shared with the 26 cities who were partners in the system. The county is holding onto the cash and landfills, saying they have a negative value when the liabilities of maintaining landfills is considered. The cities suing are Sunrise, Weston, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderhill, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Lighthouse Point, Tamarac, Davie, Plantation, Coconut Creek, Deerfield Beach, Miramar, Margate, Coral Springs, Cooper City, North Lauderdale and Southwest Ranches.
• The city of Pompano Beach is in pre-lawsuit negotiations with the county over the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. The fight is being closely watched throughout Broward County by other cities with CRAs. Pompano Beach voted to extend the existence of its CRA so it could continue keeping property tax dollars that otherwise would go to the county. The county not only opposes Pompano Beach's move but has drawn a line in the sand with all CRAs that use county tax dollars. The county voted recently to prevent cities from extending their CRAs, and alerted cities they intend to replace the city-run CRAs with a county-run redevelopment grant program. That policy would impact the cities of Fort Lauderdale, Margate, Lauderdale Lakes, Davie, Plantation Hollywood, Hallandale Beach and Deerfield Beach.
• Nine years after annexing two small unincorporated neighborhoods, the city of Lauderhill is still fighting to take over water and sewer service to the new residents, seeking the additional revenue it would bring. The county is providing those services now. City and county elected officials met recently for conflict resolution, but nothing was resolved.
• The county created rancor two years ago when it imposed a Code of Ethics on all city officials in Broward County after a successful county-led ballot initiative. City officials complained — and continue to complain — about many elements of the new code.
• Two cities, Southwest Ranches and Pembroke Pines, engaged the conflict resolution process that precedes intergovernmental lawsuits in their disagreements with the county over the new regional 911 dispatch system. The disagreements were ultimately resolved. The creation of that regional system — and the question of who would pay for it — pitted cities against the county. Ultimately, the county agreed in a 5-4 vote last year to raise property taxes to pay for it.
• The county is pushing for new affordable housing requirements on major developments in the Broward cities, but the measure is opposed by the cities. County commissioners take up the amendment soon.
Ritter said the litigation is frustrating.
"The only ones getting rich from this are the lawyers,'' said Ritter, a lawyer herself.
But Stermer said that sometimes "it's a necessary way to get things done.''
Jamie Cole, the lawyer representing cities on issues related to the garbage system funds, CRAs and the ethics code, as well as Lauderhill's fight, said he doesn't file lawsuits frivolously, and to him, the path is clear.
If the county thinks money's being wasted, he said, "I think it would be much better if they gave in and did what was right.''
"The cities are right,'' said Cole. "What are they supposed to do?''
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