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Taxes, Lack of Services Fuel Secession Drives


THE idea of a tax revolt is at least as old as the Boston Tea Party. But rather than pitching tea into the sea to protest taxes, residents of this small community in Dade County marched to the ballot box on April 11 to throw off county government by incorporating to form their own city.

Citing high taxes, slack services, and unresponsive bureaucracies, a growing number of communities nationwide are taking government into their own hands. Secessions are occurring from giant entities like Los Angeles County and small towns from Missouri to Maine.

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''We were contributing $14.5 million per year to the county in taxes but were only receiving $7.5 million in services,'' says Ken Cohen, the executive vice president of Aventura Inc., the community organization that helped put the issue on the ballot. ''It was frustration at not being able to make basic decisions about how this money was being spent that really propelled the movement,'' Mr. Cohen says.

Incorporation was not a controversial issue for this affluent community's 19,000 residents: 85 percent voted for the measure. But the idea has drawn the ire of some in Dade County.

Although the Aventura plan will likely get the approval it needs from the County Commission, two commissioners have introduced ordinances to make forming a city more costly and time-consuming.

Incorporation critics have long held that the flight of wealthy neighborhoods could leave poorer, unincorporated areas without enough tax revenue for services such as police and parks.

But affluent communities aren't the only ones with inklings of independence. Destiny, a middle-class community of 69,000 in Dade County, is also considering incorporation. Residents say they are even willing to pay more for services -- just for the right to decide directly how their dollars will be spent.

And Richmond Heights, Mo., broke away from St. Louis County, incorporating itself in 1992. The middle-class community of 40,000 cited security concerns and high taxes as its reasons for seceding.

Dade County Commissioner Gwen Margolis, who stands to lose political power from the Aventura secession, nevertheless sees merit in her consitituents' complaints. ''County government has been neglecting Aventura for some time, and local residents continue to pay extra just to have services like landscaping done around public areas,'' she says.

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Often a key incorporation issue is police protection. Many Aventura residents want more police presence for their dollar than is now available. ''Most everyone I've spoken with voted 'yes' because of security concerns,'' says Bob Hollander, a local condominium and business owner.

Education is another incorporation cause. In Los Angeles, three communities -- Carson, Lomita, and Rancho Palos Verdes -- are seeking independence from the huge Los Angeles Unified School District. Parents say the district is too big and has too many administrators to respond adequately to their concerns.

Independence also becomes popular when community identities emerge as distinct from surrounding areas. Long Island, Maine, incorporated when its residents felt too isolated from the people and government in Portland.

At least one quest for independence has achieved success. Key Biscayne left Dade County in 1991 and now has its own police and fire departments. Taxes have not risen since incorporation because residents are now paying only for their own services, whereas they claim they used to subsidize the entire county.

''Once citizens feel they have the tax base, resources, and drive, they are seceding from the larger bureaucracy,'' says Pete Sepp of the Washington-based National Taxpayers Union. ''It's called empowerment.''

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