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Alphonse Capone purchased a winter home in Miami Beach in the late 1920s. Though not much of his criminal activity was tied to South Florida , it is believed that Mr. Capone ordered the bloody Saint Valentine's Day Massacre from amongst the palm trees on his sun-drenched estate. Many mobsters like Joe Paterno (not the football coach), Johnny Roselli and Santo Trafficante have since left their mark (and sometimes their corpses) on the sun and fun capital of the Americas , but today their reputations are being shadowed by a new breed of criminals. These new crime lords have access to power that their predecessors couldn't fathom, but you won't find today's elite criminal class at the corner table of a seedy, dimly lit bar (well maybe) or on a poster in the local post office: they're hanging out in plain sight at city hall.
Seventy years after the infamous Mr. Capone purchased his home on Palm Island ( Miami Beach ), the City of Miami-- following years of malfeasance, corruption and waste--found itself on the brink of bankruptcy. The city was already charging the maximum rate on property taxes that the state would allow and since spending cuts would be too painful for the politicians and their minions, the only alternative was too find a way to further burden property owners. Faster than Tony Soprano can woof down a plate of lasagna, the politicians cooked up the 'Fire Rescue Fee' and a 'Parking Surcharge.' The Parking Surcharge was a 20% tax on all parking within the magic city to be collected from parking lot owners, and the Fire Rescue Fee would burden property owners to the tune of an additional $75 per dwelling unit per year. These were merely ways to circumvent the maximum property tax rate (which is itself nothing but a veiled protection racket) with thinly disguised new taxes.
Several commuters who found themselves paying Miami 's parking surcharge sued and even though they prevailed in court, very few were reimbursed since it was almost impossible to determine who had paid and how much (we can't figure who we stole it from so, fuggetaboutit). Some brave souls from another Florida municipality, North Fort Lauderdale , sued over their city's imposition of a 'Fire Rescue Fee.' The case reached the Florida Supreme Court, which in 2002 ruled the 'fee' unconstitutional (a fancy word for illegal).
Back in Miami , you'd think they'd be cutting checks back to the property owners whose money they had taken from them in an unconstitutional (illegal) manner. That would have been the right thing to do, but since when do goons accustomed to the use of force to get their way give back their ill-gotten gains? Not only did they not return the monies, they continued to charge the fee. So a group of seven citizens herded up by a well-connected lawyer (Hank Adorno, who coincidentally is a friend and former associate of the Mayor's) filed a class action lawsuit in order to recover the 'fees' paid. On the way to trial, the mediator suffered an untimely death (like it's ever timely) due to an automotive malfunction.
After the death of the mediator, Mr. Adorno was so overwhelmed with grief that he proposed a settlement. Instead of sorting out all the taxpayers, which would require actual work on the city's end, why not just pay the seven plaintiffs $7 million (ignoring the class)--this in spite of the fact that the seven plaintiffs combined had not paid $50,000 worth of the fee and that the city had 'collected' more than $24 million in Fire Rescue Fees. Mr. Adorno would collect 30% of the settlement amount ($2.1 million) as opposed to an hourly rate (approximately $250 per hour). Each plaintiff would collect $700,000 in two installments of $350,000 and had to sign an agreement not to squeal (otherwise they might be fitted for some new cement water skis). It is alleged that everyone involved, Mayor Manny Diaz, City Manager Joe Arriola and the commissioners knew about the terms of the settlement, but surprisingly enough (after being outed in the press) they are all claiming ignorance (HUH! What happened? Did you see that?).
While all this was going on, Mayor Diaz and City Manager Arriola were flexing some of their muscle by coming down hard on local cafeteria owners. Seems some of these small business people had the audacity to put some gambling machines in their establishments (stick to selling Florida Lottery tickets OR ELSE !). Mayor Diaz and Manager Arriola were prominently featured in the Miami Herald wielding sledgehammers against the awful machines and sending a clear message to those who dare cross their path.
But the Mayor and the Manager aren't just a couple of ruthless tough guys; they have big hearts, too. Al Lorenzo is the Mayor's political consultant and confidante (picture a municipal Carl Rove). Poor Al borrowed a million bucks from the city in the late 1980s to buy some properties in distressed areas. Unfortunately for Al, he wasn't as good as the original Al at collections, and he was unable to repay his loan to the city. Luckily for Al Lorenzo (maybe he should change his name to 'Lucky' Lorenzo), the city wasn't much better than him at collecting debt. Al still needed to clear his name (and the mayor's reputation), so the city, under the guidance of Mayor Diaz (elected in 2001), allowed Mr. Lorenzo to pass on his debt to his (very) good friend Mr. Solomon Yuken, who promptly went to work looking for someone else to pass along the million dollar debt to (pass the HOT potato, please!). Maybe someday they'll find someone who will actually pay it.
Whatever happened to all those taxpayers who paid the $24 million in illegal 'Fire Rescue' fees (AKA the vig)? Well, they're tangled in the 'legal' system trying to get their money back; if they're lucky, they might get pennies on the dollar minus their legal fees. Justice John Marshall almost had it right, 'the power to tax is a license to steal.'