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Miami Herald - November 12, 2001

Melrose Park residents place hopes for improvements in Ft. Lauderdale.

Unicorporated Areas of Broward are Predominanlty Low Income Black Neighborhooods that pay Disproportionately Higher Taxes

By Brad Bennett

With roads laid out in a circular maze to discourage strangers, with a pool and tennis club, tree-lined streets, and one-story homes, Melrose Park was once considered a pricey new subdivision on Broward County's western fringe.

That was 40 years ago.

Today, the western land rush to the Everglades has siphoned off the prestige of this neighborhood of 7,100 residents bordered by Broward Boulevard, Davie Boulevard, U.S. 441 and Southwest 31st Avenue.

Voters in this one-square-mile, unincorporated area are fighting to regain some respect. They voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday in favor of joining the city of Fort Lauderdale to reduce taxes and improve government services, such as police and fire.

Of the 554 voters who cast ballots, 90.2 percent voted in favor of being annexed on Sept. 15, 2002.

``For the last year, we've seen the increase in our taxes,'' said Godfrey Johnson, vice president of the Melrose Park Homeowners Association, citing the neighborhood's fear of even higher taxes if the area remains in an unincorporated part of the county. ``We feel that this is the best time to take an opportunity.''

Although cities have taken in most of Broward County over the past few decades, Melrose Park is among three dozen neighborhoods that cities have left out.

Like most of the unwanted communities, Melrose Park's residents are predominantly black and mostly with low to moderate incomes.

Although unincorporated areas include some of Broward's most disadvantaged residents, those residents pay disproportionately higher taxes due to rising fees for fire-rescue service and garbage pickup.


An original annexation proposal submitted to the Florida Legislature would have allowed Melrose Park residents to be able to pick Fort Lauderdale to the east or Plantation to the west.

But Plantation lobbied hard against the bill, forcing lawmakers to remove the city from consideration in order to ensure passage.

Plantation officials said they opposed annexing Melrose out of concern about the cost.

Some residents and lawmakers believe otherwise, arguing that Plantation officials seemed more receptive to taking in Broadview Park, an area west of U.S. 441 and south of Davie Boulevard and Peters Road.

Although Broadview Park has a larger white population, it has more lower-income residents than the majority-black and slightly richer Melrose Park.

But unlike Melrose Park, some Plantation officials said, Broadview Park is a better geographic fit. RACE A ROLE?

``Unfortunately, Lady Justice is not wearing a blindfold, and it was pretty clear that race was an issue,'' said state Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, who championed the cause of annexing Melrose Park.

Plantation officials maintain that a drain on the tax base, not race, was a factor in Plantation's efforts to resist annexing Melrose Park.

``Fort Lauderdale's got a broader tax base to lay that cost over than we do,'' Plantation City Council President Ralph Merritt said, adding that Fort Lauderdale has a paid fire department that can absorb the paid county firefighters who now serve the area -- versus Plantation's volunteer fire department.


During the legislative session, Dawson seized on another annexation bill, one involving another unincorporated but relatively affluent and predominantly white area named Riverland.

Dawson -- the Broward delegation chairwoman -- held up the Riverland bill in the Senate until the Melrose Park bill was passed by the House of Representatives.

That sent lawmakers representing Dania Beach and Fort Lauderdale, both of which covet the high tax revenue that Riverland is expected to bring, working overtime to salvage the Melrose Park deal, resulting in Tuesday's annexation vote.

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Floyd Johnson is preparing a report on the financial aspects of annexing Melrose Park and other unincorporated areas. He hopes to have the report ready by the Nov. 20 city commission meeting.

``What we think is that with Melrose Park and Riverland, we could probably come close to breaking even in a few years,'' Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle said.


A preliminary analysis done earlier this year showed that Melrose Park would create a loss to Fort Lauderdale of $58,723 in the first year.

But the area would generate positive revenue of $365,775 in the second year, rising to nearly $2 million by the fifth year.

But Naugle said those figures do not include the cost of additional staff time from the city manager, city attorney, Building Department, administrative services or other general government expenses.

Johnson's report is expected to factor in those costs.

While the city tallies up the numbers, Melrose Park residents hope the city not only will maintain the level of county services but also will provide some improvements.