In the dead of night, U.S. 98, passing between the black muck fields of the Glades, gives the illusion of a causeway threading through the open ocean.
In that ocean, Pahokee is an island, and in danger of sinking beneath the surface.
The fifth oldest city in Palm Beach County, it once was the third largest and an agricultural dynamo on Lake Okeechobee. Now it’s an economic ghost town.
More than one in four people who want to work have no job. Taxable property values dropped from about $99 million in 2007 to $66 million in 2014. And a fifth of the population has fled in the past 15 years.
It is one of two Palm Beach County cities — the other’s South Bay — on a list of 13 Florida municipalities in “a state of financial emergency.” Records suggest it’s been on the list continually since 1994.
Now some residents, including former mayor J.P. Sasser, are pushing to dissolve it — to make it no city at all.
For them, the last straw was Guy Harvey, what Sasser called “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The artist and conservationist had pledged $4 million to rebuild Pahokee’s neglected marina and create a resort.
But in April, Guy Harvey Outpost Resort instead went to Okeechobee County, where it plans to invest $19.5 million. In a one-page letter to Pahokee, it said it had identified “extensive navigational issues” on the lake and a “myriad of related questions over permitting, schedule, cost and funding sources.”
Some blame Pahokee’s elected leaders for losing the deal, but Mayor Colin Walkes and Vice Mayor Diane Walker said they wouldn’t have handled things any differently. They say Harvey just got a better deal up the lake.
Not all agree.
“I don’t understand anyone dumb enough to turn down an offer by Guy Harvey,” said Larry Wright, a sometime political candidate and one of those behind the petition drive to dissolve the city.
Dissolution talk is an old song on the jukebox around here. Sasser says he fought it as mayor. But he now believes the city has a dysfunctional government and “dissolution is death with dignity.”
Sasser, who is white, said he’s sensitive that some might see racial motivations. About half the residents are black and all five commissioners are African-American.
“But I really don’t think that,” he said. “I think that the silent majority of Pahokee is just giving up.”
On a Facebook page titled “Pahokee Can If,” which mentions the dissolution movement, one resident wrote July 11, “It’s time to pull the plug.’ Another wrote June 10, “I have had former Pahokeeians (sic) tell me that after deciding to ride thru town to see our old home, they have just gone up on the dike and sat and cried.”
The city’s attorney says a petition can’t force the commission to put dissolution on the ballot. But the commission could choose to do so, and if voters approve, the city goes away. The Legislature also could dissolve it, but would need a good reason.
Vice Mayor Walker says she’d put the issue to a vote if residents want. But she believes she can make the case to vote no.
The effect of an unincorporated Pahokee on its residents: While it would lower property taxes, it would mean no local government and no local services other than those provided by the county.
A look at the cumulative property tax rates for two homes across from each other on Belle Glade Road — one in Pahokee and the other in the unincorporated county — shows that the one in the city pays $25.34 per $1,000 of taxable property value, while the one in the unincorporated county pays $18.80. The cumulative rates include all property taxes each homeowners pays, including those for the county, school board, the South Florida Water Management District and several other taxing authorities.
The difference is the $6.54 tax rate to Pahokee.
Residents of the Glades area, including the three municipalities in the area, also pay $3.46 per $1,000 in a special assessment for Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue for the Glades. That puts the tax rate for Pahokee residents at the legal maximum of $10 per $1,000 of taxable value.
Pahokee already contracts with the Sheriff’s Office. And the county has handled water and sewer for the area since 2013, when the county dissolved the financially strapped Glades Utility Authority. If the city’s gone, residents will pay directly to the county, so that’s a wash.
But if the city goes away, so does City Hall: “People will lose the ability to have any say-so,” said Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities.
On July 28, city leaders drove to West Palm Beach for a county commission workshop on the Glades. Discussed that day: a “Glades Region Master Plan” that, among other things, called for $132 million in capital improvements.
But the county has given the three Glades cities millions just in recent years. Is it “spend money to make money?” Or, for many on the coast, throwing good money after bad?
“Do you know how many Glades Action Plans I’ve seen since 2002?” Sasser said.
Asked if people on the coast leave Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay off their personal radars, Pahokee resident Dashonda McPherson told a Palm Beach Post reporter, “Ain’t no kind of. They do. We ain’t even on the map. We ain’t even on the news when they do the weather.”
Every work day, she leaves her 5-year-old daughter, Adrienne, at Pahokee’s Head Start center and drives more than an hour to work at a McDonald’s in West Palm Beach.
Twenty minutes away, Belle Glade has fast food joints. But Pahokee has none. Just a few gas stations and diners. One night club. And a half-vacant Main Street that, historic photos show, once packed sedans whitewall-to-whitewall.
Founded in 1922, Pahokee went from 2,000 residents in 1930 to fewer than 6,000 now. In comparison, Boca Raton went from 447 to nearly 84,000 in that same time span.
“From Christmas until April, Pahokee is a 24-hour town; long trains of refrigerated cars roll out for northern markets day and night,” the 1939 WPA Guide to Florida says. “The streets are noisy and crowded; bars restaurants and gambling places are never closed.”
“It’s not ever gonna be like it was,” says former police chief Carmen Salvatore III, 73, who’s been retired since 2000. “I still think it can be a nice place to live.”
His family’s been part of Pahokee for a century. He says he’s waiting to hear a good reason not to dissolve.
Felix Tomlin, chickens clucking at his ankles, sat outside a service station next to the city’s lone movie theater, the Art Deco-era Prince, its facade unchanged since it closed in the 1960s.
“Pahokee’s got some bad luck,” Tomlin said. “Just don’t want to come up again.”
Lewis Pope, farmer and head of the city’s chamber of commerce, opposes dissolution. A big reason is he wants to be the next mayor.
But another is Chandler Williamson, Pahokee’s rookie city manager. Pope, like Sasser, says that if anyone can fix things, it’s Williamson, a man whose $100,000 pay comes out to some $16 for each of the city’s 6,000 or so men, women and children, most of whom count their nickels.
In his four months on the job, Williamson has restructured staff, paid bills and brought once-depleted reserves back up to $350,000. He’s asked the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General to conduct a financial audit. The city’s also wrapping up an audit for the state as a condition of the “state of emergency” listing.
Sitting behind his spartan desk, one of those dorm room budget specials that’s just a metal surface and legs, the 45-year-old Florence, S.C., native says, “We’re not into stopgap. We are solvent and will remain solvent.”
Williamson said he sees a city that attracts a cross-section. But more than once, he mentioned Pahokee as a permanent destination for retirees.
And he says he didn’t take the job to preside over a vote to shut it down.
“We have a history of economic disappointments,” he said. “Those things feed off each other.”
But, he said, “This is a viable city.”
SOUTH BAY ALSO TROUBLED
South Bay also is on Florida’s list of towns in “states of financial emergency” and also has been targeted for dissolution.
“No money’s flowing. Nothing for the kids to do,” King Kindred, a native and South Bay’s parks and recreation director since 2011, said on a summer morning at the town’s Tanner Park. But, he said, the town’s worth saving.
Leondrae Camel, the new town manager, said he won’t comment on the town’s financial situation.
The town’s been racked not just by financial problems but also charges of corruption.
Former town manager Corey Alston pleaded guilty in September 2014 to grand theft and corrupt misuse of an official position after resigning from his job in 2013 for orchestrating a backroom deal for $25,139 in unused vacation time. The mayor, vice mayor and city commissioner involved in approving that deal were all found guilty or pleaded guilty to violating the Sunshine Law and were suspended from office by the governor.
The Palm Beach County Inspector General also said in a 2014 audit that South Bay, under Alston, had paid Cedrick Thomas, a Riviera Beach council member, a full-time salary and benefits for a part-time job as South Bay’s chief of code enforcement. Both the inspector general and the state attorney said they could not prosecute, mostly because it was Alston who’d signed Thomas’ time sheets and Alston wasn’t cooperating because of the pending criminal case.
The Inspector General also has said the perennially cash-strapped town was unable to account for assets topping $315,859.
11 Florida towns dissolved since 1977:
Islandia, Miami-Dade County, 2012
Cedar Grove, Bay County, 2008
Golfview, Palm Beach County, 1998 (sold to PBIA for new runway)
Ward Ridge, Gulf County, 1987
Pennsuco, Dade County, 1986
Hacienda Village, Broward County, 1984
North Key Largo Beach, Monroe County, 1982 or 1983
Painters Hill, Flagler County, 1981
Munson Island, Monroe County, 1977
Bayview, Bay County, 1977
Other county towns dissolved:
University Park: Residents voted in 1971 to be absorbed into adjacent Boca Raton.
Greenacres: Disbanded by the Legislature in 1945 amid financial problems; reincorporated the following year.
SOURCE: Florida League of Cities, Palm Beach Post archives