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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Miramar Seeks To Fill Widening Language Gap
By Milton D. Carrero Galarza
July 21, 2003
Miramar · As Alan Howard stood quietly in line waiting to pay his water bill, he heard Dionisio Vélez explain why he thinks the city should have a bilingual employee at the counter to help Spanish-speaking residents.Howard, who like Vélez is originally from Latin America, offered a different opinion: "If we are in this country, we have to learn their language. We have to show respect."
"I know that we have to learn the language," Vélez acknowleged, "but while we learn, how are we going to solve our problems if there is no communication?"?
Miramar is Broward County's only city to have a census tract where 75 percent of the households do not speak English as a first language. Yet city officials admit there are far too few bilingual and multilingual employees to accommodate their needs.
In fact, the city doesn't know how many of its employees speak another language, although officials say the demand for such services has dramatically increased.
Miramar's population nearly doubled to 87,000 in the past decade, according to census and city data. In 1990, non-Hispanic whites made up 66 percent of the population. In 2000, that shrank to 22 percent.
Black residents, many of whom are originally from the Caribbean and speak Creole, French, Spanish or Jamaican Patois, nearly tripled from 16 percent to 43 percent.
The Hispanic community rose from 17 percent to 30 percent.Many of the new residents either don't speak English or are not proficient enough to conduct city business in English. The city's proximity to Miami-Dade County has attracted newcomers from Hialeah and other parts of Miami accustomed to having bilingual employees at city offices.
"You just can't go on in 2003 the way you would have done in 1993," said Phil Rosenberg, the city's human resources leader. "Our challenge is to make the applicant pool as representative of the community as possible."
He said he needs to recruit a more diverse staff and train department heads to manage the changes. The department is developing programs to diversify the police force and the fire and rescue division, both of which interact with the community during emergencies.
Mayor Lori Moseley, who anchored her campaign platform on her efforts to reach out to minority groups, admits the city is not where it needs to be.
"My hope is that people will eventually learn to speak English," she said, "but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be able to assist them with the services they need. It would be very short-sighted to celebrate that the city is a melting pot while on the other side not making the necessary accommodations for them."
At the city clerk's office, none of the staffers who answer the phones speaks Spanish or Creole. Neither do the clerks at the Police Department.
"Even those [residents] who can speak some English want to speak to a Spanish-speaking officer," said Police Officer Kim Hadley, who said at times she must pull an officer off patrol to come to the station to help a person in Spanish.
"We don't turn anybody away because they speak Spanish," she said.
Greg Rust, a billing clerk for the city's Financial Department, said he often has to rely on translations from the children of Spanish-speaking residents to clarify details about their water bills. In other instances, he walks to the desks of Spanish-speaking employees in other departments to get help with translation.
"We always make accommodations," said City Manager Bob Payton. "We are about services, and we are going to get those services to our residents in the best way we know how. Will it take a minute or two more? Sometimes it may."
As much as the city is trying to adjust, Moseley said, it might take years before the city can catch up to the rapid changes.
"Fifteen years ago, the city was mainly Italian and Jewish," Moseley said, "and many of the older employees are reflective of that. But it does not happen overnight. Just like the change does not happen overnight, the work force doesn't happen overnight."
Payton said he expects the situation to improve when all staffers move to the new City Hall next July. The staff is now dispersed among several offices, and Payton said it's too expensive to place interpreters in every city office.
"Building a new City Hall not only eliminates the need for redundancy," he said, "but it also ensures that the residents will be able to communicate."
Vélez, who works in redevelopment and applies regularly for city permits, has learned English in the more than 30 years he has been in the United States. But when he goes to the city offices, he still looks for an employee who speaks Spanish.
If he doesn't find someone, he speaks English. But he is worried because his father moved with him recently from Puerto Rico and doesn't speak English.
Howard says residents shouldn't rely on the city to solve the communication gap.
"Nothing in this life comes easy," he said. "We must put our best effort into learning. Education is worth more than fear, and if one wants to live in this country, we need to learn English no matter whether it's difficult or whether it's easy."