2012 State of the Village: It’s all good

Cindy Lerner, Mayor, Village of Pinecrest

This is my fourth State of the Village address, and it is hard to believe that I am entering the last year of my first term as Mayor. I must tell you, I recently participated on a panel on local government at a conference in Orlando with four other Florida mayors and proudly proclaimed to the crowd of almost 2,000 people that I am the luckiest mayor in the entire country. I claim the title! Where else can you find the beauty, tranquility and peace of the natural environment, yet the vibrant highly educated and involved community of business and residents? And with each year I am ever more appreciative that we have so much to be thankful for in Pinecrest. We have a proud tradition of excellence, our schools and our neighborhood were an amazing place to live and raise a family, going back more than three-quarters of a century, in fact to our roots in the 1930s when the Parrott jungle first opened as a tourist attraction, and the beauty of this area attracted our pioneers to settle here. So we have had this tradition of excellence to uphold and to improve upon.

My family moved here in 1960 and as a new fourth grader at Palmetto Elementary, I walked and rode my bicycle the three blocks to school and back home. And just as we were 50 years ago, when my family moved here, we remain a vibrant community that attracts young families to move here for our excellent schools, beautiful neighborhoods and wonderful quality of life. Imagine my joy at sitting with a group of fourth grade girl scouts at Palmetto Elementary last week and sharing with them that I too was a girl scout in fourth grade at Palmetto Elementary, and maybe one day one of them would be the mayor of Pinecrest!

Did you know that Palmetto Senior High school’s very first graduating class, the class of 1961, recently held its 50th reunion? I had the opportunity to attend this class of ’61’s visit to see the school once again (sadly it looks much the same) and to look at their yearbook; it was hard to believe, the Palmetto expressway was being built as the Palmetto high school opened it’s doors. The swim team swam in a rock pit; they even had a rifle club. Pictures show the old fashioned switchboard with the operation plugging in the connection. And speaking of connections, this class had an opportunity to talk to the current juniors and seniors, the yearbook and newspaper staff interviewed some of them to learn about their history and legacy. Now I am excited to say this inaugural class will be helping us start a Palmetto senior high school alumni association to support the tradition of excellence at the high school. So we feel a responsibility to assure the continuing educational excellence of our schools. Yet, the fact is over the past five years, with a declining economy, the Florida legislature has reduced our own school district’s budget by $2 billion. That is a huge impact on our school, and has affected staffing of counselors and media specialists, course options, class sizes, technology and facilities improvements. We must begin to look at the future needs and work with the district to see how renovations, such as was recently done by Miami Beach Senior High, can be done at our schools.

One of the first things I did after taking office was to convene an Educational Advisory Committee, which meets monthly. It includes the five principals of our local public schools, their PTA representatives, our school board member Larry Feldman, MDCPS school district and region representatives and concerned community members. We have speakers from time to time to learn about opportunities and initiatives.

Our first goal was to create an Educational Compact with the district, which took about a year. We learned what other cities have done, analyzed our needs and came up with some goals. One of which was to enhance the technology at our five local schools, which are in need of significant enhancements to stay competitive with the brand new schools that have been built in recent years. After all, these schools were built more than fifty years ago, and they look it. Hence was borne the Smart Schools Campaign, a commitment to raise the funds to bring smart boards to every classroom in each of the five schools in Pinecrest. Out of that effort, the SmARTy Dog project was created; we are currently at 26 amazing dogs which are springing up all over Pinecrest, at the schools, in our Parks and gracing many of our sponsoring businesses. The dogs, which are painted by local artists and a few by the schools’ students, will be public art for the next three months, and then will be auctioned off on March 28 in Pinecrest Gardens, with all proceeds going to fund new technology in our schools.

The second goal was to provide a means by which our own Pinecrest students would be more inclined to remain in our Palmetto schools, rather than see any attraction to attending outside magnet schools. So, the Green Academy was established to highlight the excellence of their environmental science programs and collaborate with our Sustainability initiative, which I will discuss a bit later. This is our first year as a Green Academy and we look forward to a wonderful new partnership with the newly established CLEO institute, created by Caroline Lewis, the founder of the Fairchild Challenge.

The CLEO institute is a comprehensive initiative to inform and engage the community and the broader world in understanding climate change and what our role should be. It is now based at Pinecrest Gardens and will help develop educational programs on climate change and how we must take a role in preventing more adverse impact on our environment.

All five of our schools are also instituting wellness policies that will assure healthier eating at our schools, and more physical activity for our students, to combat the rising number of child obesity cases. They are growing organic gardens, and hosting their own farmers market at Palmetto elementary and soon at our other neighboring schools. To all of you who faithfully attend and contribute so much to the Education advisory committee, my heartfelt thanks, it is a very special community collaboration, and shows how much we all care about maintaining excellence in our schools.

This year, Pinecrest Community Center has expanded also, with new programming and fitness options, as well as many new programs for our senior citizens. The Fitness center expanded to a second room and added more equipment. We had hoped for additional construction to expand the center, but it is being postponed due to a weak economy and a desire to hold off on capital projects this year.

The national recreation consultant we hired several years ago, Ken Ballard, to conduct an operational audit, assured us in his recommendations to expand the center that for each dollar invested, we would see expanded revenue, and he was correct. Expansion of the center is also important in order to address all of the needs of a significant senior population, as we have 640 residents aged 80 or older.

I hope you all saw the wonderful article in Neighbors on our Pinecrest Pioneers, who, I am sure, have found a Fountain of Youth in those old water wells! In addition to the twice-a-year luncheon we host for our Pioneers, our enhanced attention to our seniors based on requests for programs and services, necessitated bringing on a part time senior activities coordinator this past year, Janice Drewing, who brings significant experience in senior programming and has created many new enrichment programs, fitness classes and cultural activities for our seniors, which will ensure their quality of life remains high and they stay active. The community center advisory committee has been re instituted and is welcome to hear your ideas and feedback on making it the best venue for all of our community.

Our botanic garden continues to grow under the tender loving care of our horticulturalist, Craig Morrell, and our operations manager, Wayne Myers, and their staff. The long-time commitment to enhance the gardens by the Pinecrest Garden Club and the Community Garden Charitable Fund has truly made this a source of great community pride. The Pinecrest Gardens Advisory Committee helps guide the council by reviewing and updating the master plan and the hard work of redesigning the plant book, the map and the signs. These are all now installed and in use, so please take advantage of this gorgeous garden, come spend a day and really get to know it, take the new maps and explore, or take a guided tour. This past year has been incredibly productive due to the incalculable hours donated by the members of the Advisory committee, the Club and the Fund. I can’t thank you all enough for the dedication you have shown to maintain our Gardens, and to create ever more opportunities to enhance cultural enrichment for all of us. We can now also boast a New Volunteer program, for all aspects of the gardens, botanic and cultural, which has recruited new energy, with orientations training and support for our much appreciated volunteers.

The Gardens have flourished in the cultural arena as well, with the vision and energy of Director Alana Perez, and the technical and programming expertise of Jerry Kinsey, is now a constant source of cultural events, music, dance art and of course children’s music and dance. We have the best weekly farmers market, in town and our second season of jazz series is a great success. This year new programs include once a month Sunday brunch , monthly chick flicks, family movie night, this weekend is the Latin Spice, and of course the long time favorites, the Art Festival, Taste of Pinecrest, Eggstravaganza, Earth Day Festival and so much more! A new Pinecrest Gardens Membership drive has begun and will provide opportunities to come to the gardens as often as you like for a nominal rate, as well as contribute at higher levels if you choose.

We have also finally received the long sought designation to be listed on the National Registry of Historic places. We have been capturing oral histories of our Pinecrest Pioneers and provide them on our web sites. Our respect for and responsibility to carry on their legacy reaches into all aspects of community life. This year, we had the opportunity to honor the accomplishments of one of our respected residents and national Baseball Hall of Famers, Andre Dawson, a long time Pinecrest resident, who grew up in South Miami, and who shared with us that one of the first baseball fields he played on as a child was at Suniland Park. So in naming one of Suniland ball fields Andre Dawson Field, we honor his legacy.

Safety and security are always uppermost in our minds for our family, our homes and businesses, and I am so proud of the Pinecrest police department and our community-oriented policing. Recently, the department’s Crime Prevention Officer, Detective Alex Martinez, was recertified as a Crime Prevention Practitioner. This designation qualifies her to perform sophisticated residential and commercial property security surveys to help make them more crime resistant. If you haven’t availed yourself of this free service, I highly recommend you consider doing so.

On the crime front, the news is not good. Perhaps as a consequence of our moribund economy, when compared to the same period last year, Part One crimes are up approximately 25 percent, with considerable increases in the frequency of car and home burglaries. While the department has made some arrests in these cases, these trends continue and in our car burglaries the vast majority of cars entered were left unlocked with valuables inside. Please do your part by removing all valuables, secure all doors and be sure to call our police if you see anything or anyone acting suspicious. Our reputation as tough traffic enforcers keeps our streets safe, and our patrols constantly alert our residents to potential opportunities they may be providing a wandering criminal. We are constantly looking to expand public awareness and engagement, and you will see our school resource officers every day at the schools assisting is so many ways.

One of our priority goals in our Strategic Plan created two years ago is to assure leadership in sustainability. Just what is sustainability? It is the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future generations. How does a city become sustainable? According to Henry Iler, one of South Florida’s foremost planners, it is by implementing a comprehensive green action plan, long-range adaptation plan and a climate change plan. Living green has been a major focus this past year, so the council has also worked to assure the village becomes a more walkable, livable community, adding sidewalks to connect our parks, community center, the gardens and schools to the community in a way that will encourage residents to get out of their cars and walk or ride bicycles more often, thus reducing carbon footprint and enhancing healthy living patterns.

We have finally completed the 60th Avenue sidewalk project and it is now enjoyed by all. No longer do people have to walk their dogs in the middle of the street, and they have a safe path to the community center, library and gardens. We created a new Transportation Advisory Committee this year to review resident concerns and requests for traffic calming, bikeways and any proposed project being discussed by the Florida Department of Transportation or the county transportation projects. We also received a grant to design safer routes to school to encourage parents to walk their children to our three elementary schools.

Soon you will see the Pinecrest People Mover driving around the village, kicking off a pilot transit program with the ambitious goal of alleviating some of the terrible traffic congestion during rush hour at the middle school and high school. We first spent the past year doing due diligence, hired a traffic consultant and sent out surveys to parents and students to tell us what they needed in the way of a transit system to make sure it met their needs. We worked closely with the administration at the two schools and with the PTAs to identify where the needs were and how the community wanted the service to be delivered. Now we ask for your participation to help us make it the success it can be.

If the route needs to be tweaked to include more stops so your child can hop on, by all means let us know. It will be a welcome resource for parents who have had to leave work early to pick their child up from school and get them back home. If you want them delivered to the library or community center, we can do that also; just let us know and we will add that to the route. If it takes off, we may look at expanding the routes. The next step will be to create other routes for seniors to be able to get to the Gardens community center, library, parks and shopping. This is a significant step in reducing our carbon footprint, and only a first step!

You should know that village government is but a drop in the bucket in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, compared to what is produced by our residents and businesses. Our efforts must serve as a model of good behavior, to encourage residents and business owners to replicate what we practice. Our Green Action plan Phase one is now complete; in which we implemented a recycling program with recycle bins throughout the village parks and municipal buildings, provided staff training in LEED practices and policies, and changed our procurement policies. After that, we began to look at analyzing all aspects of village operations across every department, and began to implement energy and cost savings. We are about to receive the Florida Green Building Council’s Green Local Government designation as a Florida Green Building Council, Silver level Green city.

This year we have also implemented changes in our Building code, which will encourage builders of both homes and commercial buildings to implement energy efficient standards and practices, and are now looking at doing the same thing for our land use policies to assure we are protecting our environment for future generations. We will also sponsor for Arbor Day a “put the Pine back in Pinecrest Day”, offering Pine trees for our residents to plant throughout the village, restoring the original pre-Hurricane Andrew look of the village.

We have made much progress on our Going Green journey, green action plan, recycling in all public buildings and parks, certified green city, green building ordinance, Green Academy at our public schools, and now the Green Corridor which is what we have named our Property Assessed Clean Energy initiative, which just two months ago we voted to enter into an inter-local agreement with Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay, South Miami and soon with Coral Gables and Miami likely to join.

This is a bold and visionary step we take as South Miami Dade county, one which will not only save our commercial and residential property owners money by installing energy efficiency improvements, but will create a new green economy, with many new jobs. Property Assessed Clean Energy provides property owners with a financing option, in addition to your ability to go to the bank for a loan to make improvements, this completely voluntary program provides one with another financing option, have your home or business assessed to determine what would help save money on electricity, such as new windows, solar water heater or panels, and the amount borrowed becomes a property tax lien, and is paid off yearly as a special tax assessment, obviating the need to have additional credit obligations, instead it is a property lien.

This month I attended the National League of Cities conference in Phoenix, Arizona and focused on sustainability workshops where I heard a presentation on financing energy efficiency practices and improvements, and one of the speakers from California, where this kind of program has been operating for the past five years, mentioned Pinecrest, Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay and South Miami, our Green Corridor, as being at the forefront in Florida, leaders in the green economy. As one who has been so frustrated with the lack of a renewable energy profile or goals by the state of Florida, it was a proud moment to know that despite our state’s failure to develop a comprehensive renewable energy policy, local government is forging ahead and we look forward to more cities in Florida following our lead.

In the next few months we will begin to look at our commercial corridor along US1 and, together with our residents and businesses, go through a planning process to develop a community vision for what we want our commercial corridor to look like in 10-20 years. This segment of US 1 is an eight-mile-long strip shopping center corridor, built in the 1950s and 1960s for the most part, and as the property owners decide to take advantage of their highly sought after location to develop, it is critical that we serve notice of what our vision is, what we want and how our needs can best be met.

I would like to take a moment to share with you one very important aspect of what your Village Council has been doing to fight to protect and preserve the health, welfare, the aesthetics and the economic viability and future of the US 1 corridor; that is our now three-year-long battle against the FPL proposal to put the monstrosity 100-foot-high transmission lines along our entire western boundary along US 1; in fact, it would go from 136 street north all the way to I 95. I invite you, the next time you drive along US 1, to pay attention to the electric poles. You will first notice that there are a few power lines, the smaller ones that you never even notice. Those are, in fact, not transmission lines; those are the lesser voltage distribution lines that cover all neighborhoods. The major transmission lines are the huge trestles, the ones you see on the back side of The Falls that go diagonally across Kendall, Westchester and the City of Miami into downtown Miami, and were placed there in the ’60s when they built Turkey Point. They connect and carry the power to downtown Miami. You may also have seen the 100-foot poles out in the Everglades and along industrial corridors, and are now even along a major corridor in North Miami, making it look far more industrial an area than before. The Pinecrest Village Council was thrust into this battle in 2009 when we were first notified of FPL’s plans and we have been united in our passion to prevent these lines from ever being built where FPL proposes. That is, unless they were installed under ground. But FPL tells us that if we want the lines underground, then we must pay for it, to the tune of somewhere in the neighborhood of $13-18 million per mile for 8 miles of lines. And they won’t substantiate where they get that figure since they are not in the habit of building infrastructure underground, where it belongs. This, when they propose spending $20 billion (and growing) on new infrastructure to build two new nuclear power plants? And they refuse to include the main transmission lines as part of their infrastructure, so that instead they will be able to declare higher dividends for their stockholders. Well, no siree, not on our watch!

So our council has taken the lead and we are litigating the matter in an administrative proceeding before the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Also joining our fight are the cities of South Miami and Coral Gables. And we thank them for joining forces with us in this battle against a goliath “power”. We are proposing an alternate corridor, which is actually the original corridor built by FPL when they built Turkey Point.

We do not want to impose new infrastructure in new neighborhoods; instead, we want to force the utility to make significant improvements on the Infrastructure they have not tended to for 40 years. We are proposing it be either undergrounded or upgraded, as many places along that corridor haven’t seen any upgrades in 40 years. We have now become quite expert in the policies and politics of fossil fuels vs. renewable energy, and the truths we must all become more aware of with nuclear energy, especially since Fukishima disaster in Japan. We learned how the Florida utilities are financing their investor-owned businesses when we learned about the early cost-recovery law passed by the Florida Legislature in 2006. Pinecrest was the first council to pass a resolution to urge the legislature to repeal the law written by utilities in 2006, known as Early Cost Recovery (ECR) , followed by South Miami and now many other cities as well. ECR permits FPL and Progress Energy to charge all of their rate payers additional charges for the costs of siting, designing and obtaining the licenses and permits for the new nuclear plants without having to commit to ever building the plants. So far they have raised over $300 million, and counting. They received a certificate of need back in 2007, before the real estate bubble burst and the economy tanked, and growth slowed significantly. They have not yet received a license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which may never happen. The truth is, and the hope is, that these new plants never get built and that instead we move into the world of distributed renewable energy. Our resolution to repeal Early Cost Recovery has been adopted by the Miami Dade League of Cities and other cites all over the state, so we are again leading the way.

Finally, we passed a resolution this year to declare that when the franchise agreement entered into by Miami Dade County, before we ever incorporated, expires in 2020, that the Village of Pinecrest will have weaned itself away from reliance on franchise fees (which are in fact only a pass through for cities, allowing their residents to pay an extra fee on their electric bill, which is then passed through to the cities) sort of a back door tax arrangement the utilities came up with as an exchange for cities to promise not to compete with them for creating energy. That might have worked 30 years ago, but has no place in today’s municipal structure when it will be renewable energy that drives our new economy.

So, from the proposal three years ago to run new lines down US 1, the Pinecrest Council has stood firm and united, we have informed ourselves, coalesced with neighboring municipalities and invested our village resources to make sure we preserve and protect, far more than the corridor, but our health, security and future. I thank the council for fighting on with me.

Looking to the future, I am so proud of our Youth Advisory Council. These 15 middle and high school students, appointed by the council, are learning about the operations of our village and about leadership. Each month, a department director provides them with a detailed overview of how their department operates. They heard from our police chief this past week, had a discussion about safety at school and in the neighborhood, and each one of them put the police department’s number in their phones to have if they ever saw or heard of something not quite right.

Our Youth Media Project then engaged them in creating a message and recording it on our radio station, 1590 AM. Check it out on your car radio. Although the sound quality is not what it should be — the critically important upgrade was the victim of this year’s budget cuts — I am hopeful that it will be included as a priority for communication in emergencies, and even for daily updates on happenings in the village for next year’s budget. They also are participating this year in the Junior Orange Bowl Parade with a float. The theme is, of course, Pinecrest is Living Green, and we will have with us the Palmetto Senior High School marching band. Come out to cheer them on Jan. 2 in downtown Coral Gables.

One final highlight for this past year has been the hiring of our new village manager Yocie Galiano Gomez, who has done a remarkable job of transitioning the village staff to her new leadership. She has created a real team, bringing all staff together for weekly meetings; she is out in the community and, most important to me and our council, she is extremely responsive to our residents and makes it a priority for staff as well.

The first real test was balancing our budget and this year for the first time we hosted a Town Hall meeting to share with the residents a real analysis of the challenges we faced and how to approach them as cautious stewards of your tax dollars. She brings so many strengths to the village; most notable is her love of our community and I see it in all of our staff, it is part of the fabric of our local government, a true respect for, and appreciation of its legacy and a desire to work hard to promote it.

This coming year will see many more new and exciting opportunities to get involved in the village, and if you have some time and desire to be more involved in your community, we would love to have you join us. If you don’t receive the Village E news the first of each month, you won’t know all the wonderful things that go on in your own back yard, so be sure to go online and subscribe. In summary, in Pinecrest, it’s all good!

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