MIAMI — In the great American quest to shrink the size of government, Miami is considering the ultimate step: jettisoning its government altogether.
A group of citizens has forced a ballot calling for the city to dissolve all operations and have them taken over by Dade County. It would be the first city of its size in the United States to do so, and not surprisingly, some residents are upset.
The debate has come down to pride versus the pocketbook. Proponents of the plan see an opportunity to eliminate a deficit-ridden government and stimulate investment by coming under Dade County's umbrella - and a lower tax rate. But many Miami residents fear losing not only public services but also the city's identity.
"It should be kept. Miami - the second city of Cubans!" a caller proclaims, during a recent call-in survey on a Cuban talk radio program.
Many Cuban exiles lay claim to having built Miami into a hub of international trade and are wary of any move to do away with it.
In the '60s, Cubans fleeing Castro's revolution brought new economic and cultural life to Miami and buried a previous move to merge the city with the county. Today, they are again among the strongest defenders of the city's right to exist.
An opinion poll published by the Miami Herald in late January indicated that 69 percent of the city's Cubans oppose abolition, compared with 49 percent of "non-Hispanic" whites.
But financial concerns weigh heavily on the city. Miami is $68 million in the red, and many say that dissolving Miami's government would unleash an economic boom for the metropolitan area. With the Miami government gone, residents and businesses would pay property taxes to the county, whose rates are less than half of Miami's.
"We don't believe that this community can afford to continue to pay for two metropolitan governments," says lawyer Gene Stearns, who is leading the charge to dissolve Miami. "We envision a step where the city of Miami is abolished over a year-and-a-half period, but then areas throughout the city would then be broken up into smaller town and village governments."
Nationwide, a number of city governments have been "consolidated" with their surrounding county governments, but the move to eradicate Miami's government is unprecedented.
"I can't think of any city the size of Miami that has dis-incorporated," says Mike Ratcliffe, of the US Census Bureau in Washington. "We're following this with quite a bit of interest, and we can't think of anything this century that compares."
But even with lower taxes and booming investment, there could be an economic downside, too. Dissolving Miami would leave the city's poorer Hispanic and black neighborhoods - Little Havana, Little Haiti, Overtown and Liberty City - without adequate services, argues Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida International University in Miami.
"Blacks and Hispanics ... have a lot to gain from the city of Miami," says Dr. Moreno, "The city of Miami ... is a source of jobs and they see a great deal of economic stakes in the city of Miami continuing the way it is."
Miami's Cuban-American Mayor Joe Carollo is quick to point out that although Miami's property taxes are high, the city's garbage collection fees are by far the lowest of the Dade County area's 28 municipalities.
The Miami police are also doing what they can to help. In December they accepted cuts in benefits to curtail city spending and prevent layoffs.
"You may have lower taxes [by dissolving the city government] but you're going to lose in services - in fire, in sanitation, in police and all the other services that the city of Miami offers," says Miami police lieutenant David Payne.
A city commission has until April to draft a ballot question on the issue, after which a vote on the issue must be held within four months.
Despite the pressure, Mr. Carollo has vowed that the city will not disappear on his watch.
"I don't believe the residents of Miami that care for Miami, that have lived here for so many years, would want to see that happen," he says.