By George “Bud” Scholl, Mayor
(Thursday, January 16, 2020) – Citizens of Sunny Isles Beach, I am pleased to present the 2020 State of the City address. This year I am delivering my sixth State of the City address. However, 2019 has been one of the busiest years the city has experienced in quite some time.
I am going to start on a solemn note, wishing farewell to former Commissioner Roslyn Brezin who passed away in February 2019. Roz lived in our city for close to 50 years, served on the City Commission for seven years and remained an active voice in our community right up until the time of her passing. We will miss Roz and her seemingly boundless energy. Our two newest commissioners, Jeniffer Viscarra and Alex Lama, completed their first full year of service. Given the myriad of issues we faced as a community and commission in 2019, they learned quickly what it takes to make objective decisions in difficult situations. Last year also brought a newly outsourced legal department which provided additional expertise and positive economic benefits to this important area of our staffing.
Once again, I want to highlight the excellent financial condition we have maintained. Our city’s assessed taxable value increased by approximately 4% from $11.1 billion to $11.5 billion with $919.5 million coming from new construction being added to the tax rolls. Our millage rate remains the fourth lowest municipality in Miami-Dade County at 2.2 mils per $1,000 of assessed value.
In 2019 we made progress on our multi-year Utility Undergrounding and Streetlight Enhancement Project. As one of our biggest undertakings, this is the most visible project to our residents and often the most frustrating. Decorative streetlight installation continues and provides a noticeable improvement from 178 Street north to the William Lehman Causeway. While FPL is currently running underground wiring on the south end of the city, the overall completion of this project is mostly dependent upon FPL and the Florida Department of Transportation. As I pointed out last year, this is a long process that will continue to require lane closures and other frustrations, but the benefits to the city will be numerous once this work is completed.
At the end of August, we spent days watching, waiting and preparing for Hurricane Dorian as the predicted path looked certain to come within our proximity. We were fortunately spared the wrath of Dorian, however many of our residents participated in a city-sponsored donation drive for victims in the Bahamas. This year’s preparedness received positive feedback with the addition of a sandbag distribution program, a re-entry card program in the event of an evacuation, and our first emergency utilization of the SIBAlert system to communicate directly with residents and business owners with storm updates. In late December, we were not so lucky when an epic rainstorm drenched our area. Golden Shores experienced severe flooding prompting us to accelerate the pump station design and bidding process that had already commenced. Debris and build up inside the outflow pipe to the bay hindered the functionality of an existing high-powered pump, which significantly slowed our ability to remove the water quickly. Temporary pumps are in place to enable us to mitigate these types of events in the future. The Golden Shores Undergrounding Project is currently in the design phase including surveying of all properties. System design work will continue throughout 2020 with the cooperation of neighborhood utilities: FPL, AT&T, Atlantic Broadband and TECO natural gas.
Pedestrian safety remains a top priority and a lot of progress was made in 2019 to further several strategic safety initiatives. Bus shelter replacements resulted in wider sidewalks in some areas, while we continue to widen sidewalks and illuminate crosswalks wherever possible. Our two pedestrian bridge initiatives saw significant progress this past year. Design of the 180 Street Government Center pedestrian bridge continues. This has been a long process of multiple reviews by the Florida Department of Transportation and we are now nearing design completion. In 2019, land was secured for the 174 Street/Collins Avenue pedestrian bridge, a study was completed, and the request for design, engineering and building services is out to bidders with a plan for award in spring 2020.
Resiliency efforts continue to drive important considerations for coastal communities. We have two studies underway that will assist in planning for the future environmental needs of our city. The first is a citywide Flood Adaptation Assessment, awarded to us through a competitive application process with the American Flood Coalition. The second is a stormwater retention study that analyzes the Florida Department of Transportation stormwater retention areas for additional storm water capacity. We are coordinating with county, state and federal governments to ensure the long-term health of our beach. Sixty thousand cubic yards of sand was added to our beach from three private developments in 2018/19, with another 24,000 cubic yards expected in January-March of 2020. This year we will also begin coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers for a federally funded renourishment of the entire span of our beach, which will include the rehabilitation of the submerged breakwater structures that were installed at the north end of the city by the Army Corps in the early 2000s. Maintaining and improving our citywide drainage system is an ongoing effort and a top priority. The first phase of the Central Island Drainage project is nearing completion, with most of the work performed in 2019. We will be adding two new wells on 172 Street and installing specialty valves on several pipes to mitigate water from coming into our city from the Intracoastal Waterway.
Our short-term rental program was officially implemented in 2019. By February 2019 we had received approximately 600 registrations for short-term rentals. During the year we encountered unit owners circumventing both our registration requirements and their actual condominium regulations in those buildings that do not allow short-term rentals. These experiences resulted in a modification of our ordinance to require inspections of proposed units to be used as short-term rentals. Additionally, we requested all internet platforms that advertise short-term rentals to post the city license number online.
At the beginning of 2019 it was discovered that a portion of our land use regulations had been misinterpreted for several years, resulting in six existing buildings being deemed non-conforming. This led to a series of some of the most contentious public commission meetings and social media campaigns in the history of the city. We ultimately imposed a building moratorium in the Town Center District, created a new southern Town Center district and passed a comprehensive plan amendment that was reviewed favorably by the state to bring the six buildings into conformity. Moving forward, we are going through a public process to decide how best to treat the land uses in the remaining northern portion of the Town Center District. Everyone involved in these issues received an education in the finer aspects of land use regulations and zoning.
It would be apt to coin 2019 the year of citizen engagement. We saw our highest levels of resident social media usage via Twitter, up 10%, Instagram, up 41%, and Facebook, up 22%. Our commission and workshop meeting attendance also experienced upticks. And our SIBAlert subscribers doubled in 2019 to over 2,000.
Our Cultural Master Plan guides most of our cultural event programming and provides support to our volunteer Public Arts Advisory Committee (PAAC). The PAAC reviews the art component of zoning applications as well as other city projects by utilizing experts in art curation. Then they present their recommendation to the Commission. The conceptual design of the Meditation Garden at Town Center Park has been approved and is moving forward. The PAAC also reviewed the conceptual designs of the two pedestrian bridges under development. Given the success of the PAAC’s process, as we closed 2019, the Commission agreed to fund seed money for additional PAAC projects. They now have the opportunity to apply for grants and other funding sources to continue to improve our quality of life.
Our city has become known for a high level of entertainment throughout the year. 2019 brought us some of the highest quality programs in our region through the Gateway LIVE! series. Chinese Acrobats, Dueling Pianos, and a Broadway style concert, What a Night, were among these popular events. We renamed the Jazz Fest to “Music in the Isles,” which featured Jon Secada at Gateway Park. The annual City Anniversary Celebration was also hosted at Gateway Park for the first time this past year. This was all in addition to continuing our tradition of regular free concerts from rock and roll and doo wop, to full orchestras at various parks as well as free movie programs for all ages.
The Oil Painting club took off as a free program for residents and brought people with similar interests together. Our teens only events expanded to feature interesting and interactive activities such as an Escape Room and Sushi Making. This year we saw a surge in healthy senior living with increased interest in the bocce club and pickleball programs as well as Tai Chi. Full Moon Yoga continues to attract the largest crowd each month on the beach for yogis of all skill and age. We also began building out the long-awaited center at Gateway Park, which is expected to be completed later this year.
Soccer remains the most sought-after sport in town. Enrollment is consistently at max capacity and our one soccer field is always in high demand. The city offers three soccer programs to fit all skill levels: recreational soccer, select academy and travel soccer for the more advanced players. Last year our youth soccer team participated and won their division of the ESPN Memorial Day Soccer Tournament at Disney.
Our Sister City initiatives were quite active in 2019. In March of this past year I led our first sister city visit to Hengchun, Taiwan with Vice Mayor Larisa Svechin and Commissioner Jeniffer Viscarra along with residents, Keith and Fang Oliver. Then in early December, we had the honor of hosting Hengchun Mayor Lu and their delegation. This year we plan to welcome our third international intern by extending an invitation to Taiwan.
Media and technology played a big part in our safety and communications strategy. In addition to the double-digit increases in social media utilization mentioned earlier, we also launched the city’s official YouTube page with 78 public videos posted to date. We were featured on the cover of Public Management magazine highlighting our various digital initiatives including our free Wi-Fi on the beach, which utilizes solar panels on the lifeguard stands. We initiated an expansion to add more License Plate Reader (LPR) cameras to the city-owned roads starting with 189 Street south to 185 Street. We completed phase 2 of the security camera project throughout the city’s parks and public spaces, ensuring complete surveillance coverage for our police department.
And speaking of our police department, 2019 brought the first full year of stepped-up visibility and enforcement along Collins Avenue. From this, we have seen noticeably less speeding and a safer environment for pedestrians and motorists. Our PD partnered with other agencies to host a major Put it Down campaign on Collins Avenue following the passing of House Bill 107 regarding distracted driving. Officers will continue to be highly visible both along our major thoroughfares and neighborhood streets. Mother’s Day 2019 brought us a tragic event involving a shooting and the accidental death of a long-time employee of a Sunny Isles Beach car rental shop. Our police department was on the scene immediately and their rapid response was credited with preventing additional casualties and injuries.
Our city is always growing, and in 2019 we saw the substantial completion of Parque Towers and Armani Casa. Under construction during this past year has been Marina del Mar, Aurora Tower, Milton Tower and the Chabad of Lubavitch. The Milton Tower office building will be substantially completed in early 2020 and has attracted some high-profile clients from the northeast that brought us positive press in 2019. The Monaco was demolished in 2019 making way for construction of a new low-rise boutique hotel by Dezer Development.
Once again, I have the pleasure of reporting to our citizens a myriad of initiatives, events and improvements that might seem to simply appear in our city throughout the year. However, none of these would be possible without the dedication of our city staff. These full and part-time dedicated professionals do a fantastic job at carrying out the vision that the City Commission and you, our residents, provide to them. There is also a legion of volunteers that assist at many of our city events making them possible. I would like to personally thank everyone who keeps the momentum moving forward in all that gets accomplished. In the end, a real community is made up of civic-minded residents who participate and enjoy the lifestyle their community gives back. 2019 demonstrated that our citizens are passionate about their community and willing to spend time and energy expressing their views. On behalf of myself, Vice Mayor Svechin and Commissioners Goldman, Lama and Viscarra, thank you for another great year and may God bless you.