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North Miami Councilwoman battles tax liens, eviction and opponents on reelection bid

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 4/27/2021 Aaron Leibowitz, The Miami Herald

Apr. 27—Running for reelection, North Miami Councilwoman Mary Estime-Irvin says she's poised to help pull the city through a financial morass. But as she battles three challengers, Estime-Irvin is also fighting financial troubles of her own.

Estime-Irvin, a 49-year-old consultant for local businesses, faces more than $1.4 million in combined tax liens issued in 2017 and 2018 by the IRS. The Florida Commission on Elections says she owes more than $9,000 in fines for violations from her past runs for office. And she is fighting in court to block eviction from her home — which, in an odd twist, was sold by a corporation to one of her vanquished 2019 opponents.

Meanwhile, she is also running to hold onto her District 3 seat in the city's May 11 election, and facing challenges from former opponent Wancito Francius, activist Laura Hill, and ex-councilman Jean Marcellus.

The councilwoman says she is leading the city through troubled times, which include a $9 million budget deficit.

"After discovering the state of the city's finances, I am proud to have tightened our belt and worked with my colleagues to reduce our spending rather than raising taxes on our residents," Estime-Irvin, who would not agree to an interview, wrote in a statement to the Herald.

As for her own financial problems — issues that her opponents highlight as evidence that she is ill-equipped to address the city's plight — Estime-Irvin said she is handling them.

"Like many people in our community, I have faced challenges at times," she said. "I'm a single mother and have always prioritized my son and his well-being above all else."

Court records show Estime-Irvin signed over her Breezeswept Estates home in a quit claim deed in 2018 to corporation VWC, LLC. Records show the company in turn sold the home for $110,000 to former city clerk and Estime 2019 council opponent Michael Etienne. But in court documents, Estime-Irvin said a "fraudulent and nefarious self-styled lender" executed the quit claim deed prematurely to "wrongfully deprive" her of her home.

She said in her statement to the Herald that a judge has "consistently" ruled in her favor in the case against Etienne.

Estime-Irvin has also been dinged about a dozen times by the Florida Elections Commission for technical campaign finance violations during her three previous campaigns — including an unsuccessful run for state representative in 2016 — and for failing to pay fines that total over $9,000.

The commission said it has no record of Estime-Irvin paying those fines, but the councilwoman told the Herald she has already resolved some of them "and will address the rest as I can."

As for her outstanding tax debts, the IRS issued a lien in 2018 claiming Estime-Irvin owed over $1.3 million in federal taxes on top of a $77,000 lien assessed the year before. She said the liens were the result of a "bookkeeping error" related to tax withholding from her business, and that she is "currently paying it down and working towards a plan to resolve it quickly."

Her own financial troubles aside, Estime-Irvin says the city has taken steps in the right direction under her watch. She said she would "continue to be an advocate for responsible spending that will allow us to replenish our reserves while continuing to provide high quality services to our residents."

"I ran for office to serve my neighbors with integrity and care," she said. "That is what I have done for the past two years."

She also said she plans to work with the CRA and developers to bring affordable and workforce housing to her district. Currently, she said, the city has over 1,700 units of "mixed residential" housing in the pipeline.

"A lack of affordable and workforce housing is a regional issue," the councilwoman said. "Within North Miami, we have utilized our CRA to create incentives to attract the development our community needs."

Flooding problems also continue to affect District 3, Estime-Irvin said, noting that she's "cautiously optimistic" that President Joe Biden's American Jobs Act will bring resources to "modernize our infrastructure and create resiliency from the impacts of sea level rise."

The challengers

For the three candidates challenging Estime-Irvin, the city's financial woes — and the incumbent's own— are emblematic of everything they say they would do differently if they held the seat.

Francius, who is seeking the District 3 seat for the third time since 2017, said a "lack of leadership" has led the city to spend irresponsibly on the likes of flashy Super Bowl parties and elected officials' own salaries. Francius said he would ask the city to slash his pay — which is around $66,000 for council members — in half if he's elected.

"I've seen a lot of corruption," he said. "My main motivation is to fix what needs to be fixed in the district."

Francius said one of his top priorities is the cleanup of District 3's Sixth Avenue corridor, a residential area where he says residents' needs have too often been ignored.

Laura Hill, a Democratic activist who first arrived on North Miami's political scene to fight against a proposed Walmart in her neighborhood in 2014, said the city needs to "take a red marker" to its budget, "cut out a lot of the B.S." and redirect resources toward residents' needs, such as sewer infrastructure and maintenance of housing that's funded by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.

"I'm running because nobody has solved any problems in our district for a long time," Hill said. "If I don't win, I'm just gonna keep working on the issues that I see."

And Jean Marcellus, a former police officer and North Miami's District 3 councilman from 2009 to 2013, blamed "wasteful spending" for the city's financial problems. He said the situation mirrors a shortfall the city had when he first took office. By the time he left office, he said, there was a surplus.

"We need someone that knows how to fix things," Marcellus said.

Francius touts transparency, beautification

Francius said District 3 residents have called for speed bumps, extra police officers and the cleaning of swale areas in the Sixth Avenue corridor without a sufficient city response.

"We're trying to create a safe environment for our children and our neighbors," said Francius, who owns a small security company and also flips real estate. "The government doesn't communicate with the homeowners."

Affordable housing is also critical in a city that has seen some major residential developments in recent years and is likely on the cusp of a bigger boom, Francius said. He noted that the city's east side has seen more housing growth than the area west of West Dixie Highway, which encompasses most of District 3.

"I will advocate on the dais: instead of having dollar stores, let's build some housing and attract other people to come live in the area," he said.

Transparency with residents would be central to Francius' efforts in office, he added.

"I'm going to communicate with them: 'This is the money for my office, this is what we plan to do, what is your view?' " he said.

Hill brings an activist's lens

Hill's campaign made waves this month when she won the endorsement of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, a decision the party quickly put on hold after complaints of procedural issues and a call from U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, who wasn't pleased with the endorsement of Hill over Estime-Irvin.

Hill, an immigration paralegal who runs the Democratic Party's club in Northeast Miami-Dade, touts her "lifetime of service to the party" as an asset as she seeks a nonpartisan seat in a district where the majority of registered voters are Democrats.

Although Hill initially won the party's endorsement, some party members said they were hesitant to pick her in part because she's white in a majority-Black district consisting largely of Haitian Americans. Hill told the Miami Herald she has knocked on doors throughout the district, including with a campaign assistant who speaks Haitian Creole.

All of the district's residents are dealing with similar issues, she said.

"All of our sewages are connected together," Hill said. "It's all the same s---."

Through her activism against the Walmart project, Hill helped form a group called NoMi Neighbors, which meets monthly to talk about community issues. She said she started attending council meetings "religiously" and "became a regular around City Hall," pushing the city on issues like the use of pesticides and sewage problems in her neighborhood.

"North Miami needs municipal investment into the things that people pay taxes for," Hill said. One victory, she said, is an improvement project at Cagni Park, where Hill helped advocate for Miami-Dade County to release $5 million in funding for the project.

Marcellus says experience is key

Marcellus has stayed active in North Miami since leaving the council in 2013, including several unsuccessful runs for mayor and a run to reclaim his District 3 seat in 2019.

In 2018, he said, he advocated against a $120 million general obligation bond to fund various city projects, which was defeated by the voters.

"I thought it was bad for the city. I spent my money, I organized people, and we won," Marcellus said.

Marcellus, like his opponents, said the lack of affordable housing is a crisis. He said that, when he lived in an apartment in North Miami in the late 1980s, rent was around $275. Now, Marcellus said, the same apartment costs $1,300.

"The low-income people cannot [afford to] live in the city," he said. "We have to find the dollar amount from the county, the state and the federal government and see if we can protect these people."

Marcellus told the Herald he didn't want to make another run for city council this year. But friends and supporters, assessing the city's financial troubles, convinced him otherwise, he said.

"Some friends said, 'Marcellus, the situation is very bad, we have to fix this for them,' " he said. "They convinced me."

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