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Miami Beach businessman Russell Galbut revives taxpayers association

Miami Beach businessman Russell Galbut revives taxpayers association

Dormant for a decade, The Miami Beach Taxpayers Association has returned with the backing of prominent developer Russell Galbut.

BY David Smiley

After a long hibernation, one of Miami Beach’s oldest and most influential government watchdog groups is back with the support of some prominent Beach figures.

The Miami Beach Taxpayers Association, which for 50 years acted as a mouthpiece for residents and played host to mayors’ state of the city addresses and candidate forums, held its first meeting in about a decade Wednesday at The Shelborne Beach Resort on Collins Avenue. About 100 attended, including City Commissioner Jerry Libbin, former mayors Harold Rosen and Norman Ciment, and past Taxpayers Association president Barton Goldberg, who once ran Jefferson National Bank.

The resurrection of the Taxpayers Association comes nine months after Miami Beach commissioners raised the tax rate and as the city braces for a fifth straight year of budget tightening amid falling property values and increasing employee salaries and pension costs.

“One of the things we want to accomplish is to wake up the city, because the city is asleep at the wheel,” said Russell Galbut, the organizer of Wednesday’s meeting and a principal of Crescent Heights, one of the country’s largest condo and hotel developers.

Wednesday’s topics — according to a full-page ad placed June 26 in The Miami Herald Neighbors northeast section — included “high taxes,” “bloated city payrolls” and “junkets.”

Galbut, a city hall critic who says Miami Beach government is choked with red tape and bureaucracy, said he moved to bring the Taxpayers Association back because Miami Beach lacked an influential citizens group to balance the weight held by city commissioners and administrators. While Miami Beach does have the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club and The Civic Circle, which feature guest speakers, Galbut and Breakfast Club moderator David Kelsey said the Taxpayers Association will focus on public discussion of current issues and independent analysis of city expenses.

“It seems the philosophy of Miami Beach is to figure out every which way to tax the people who live on Miami Beach,” Galbut said. “It’s a tax-and-spend philosophy and that’s unacceptable.”

However, Galbut’s pivotal involvement in bringing the association back has raised some eyebrows.

Though he was president of the association during the early 80s, Galbut is also perhaps the busiest developer and businessman on Miami Beach. He currently needs city approval to move forward with several high-profile projects, including a mixed-use, robotic towing warehouse in Sunset Harbour and a roughly 500,000-square-foot luxury shopping mall and office complex on the several blocks that run up against the northwest corner of Alton Road and Fifth Street.

Jo Asmundsson, who led the Taxpayers Association until just before it folded in 2000, said she is happy that the association has returned. But she wondered if Galbut resurrected the group to build community support for his projects — a suggestion Galbut brushed off as cynical criticism from detractors.

“My mind immediately goes to the [proposed complex] at the end of Alton Road,” said Asmundsson. “If he has a prestigious group like that backing him, it would help him when going before the city planning boards and Design Review Board, and of course the City Commission.”

Galbut is also a frequent contributor to political campaigns, and his team of attorneys includes past Taxpayers Association president David Nevel and former mayor Neisen Kasdin.

But current politicians apparently need not worry too much about the new watchdog group’s involvement in city politics.

“They were very clear it’s not an organization that’s going to be politically endorsing or supporting candidates,” said Libbin. “That takes the politics out of it.”

The association did not name directors Wednesday, but Galbut said a monthly meeting date has been set at The Shelborne on the first Wednesday of each month, starting Aug. 3.

“We’re not against anybody,” said Galbut. “We’re looking at how we can make our community better.”

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