The Miami Dolphins’ sprint to get public funding to upgrade Sun Life Stadium got a boost Wednesday when Miami-Dade County commissioners urged Florida lawmakers to pass a bill designed to create new state and local subsidies for the renovation.
The Dolphins are asking for an increase in Miami-Dade’s mainland hotel tax to 7 percent from 6 percent and for a $3 million-a-year subsidy from the state. Their goal is to get the government to fund about half, or $199 million, of a $400 million renovation that would revamp jumbo monitors, move seats closer to the field and build an open-air canopy that would keep fans drier and cooler.
For the county to increase the hotel tax, it needs a thumbs-up from the state. Then, to bump the tax up it must come back to the county for a vote.
The Dolphins say they need the renovations to lure more national college football title games and Super Bowls to South Florida, particularly the National Football League’s 50th championship in 2016. To get the premier NFL showcase game, the Dolphins must compete with San Francisco’s new stadium, and the team’s bid would have to be in place by the end of May.
The County Commission’s vote Wednesday was a nonbinding request. But state lawmakers pushing the Dolphins’ proposal said they wanted local support to lobby a divided delegation.
And commissioners still suffering the public backlash over the one-sided deal to build the Miami Marlins’ Little Havana ballpark had a hard time ignoring the 300-pound gorilla in the room.
There was plenty of discussion about the football club opening its books, diversity in hiring and fair negotiations. But almost every speech on the dais began with a reminder of the Marlins fiasco.
“The stench of the Marlins deal is in the pores of everything this is about,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who also said he was concerned the commission might be rushing to judgment because most residents aren’t aware of the Dolphins’ plan.
The discussion began with Dolphins Chief Executive Officer Mike Dee explaining the financing plan and saying a vote in favor of the resolution “would send an important message to our lawmakers statewide.”
Before taking his seat among the dozen or so Super Bowl and Orange Bowl committee members who tagged along with him, Dee warned commissioners a “no” vote could stop all dialogue, “and potentially sets this community back 10 years or more” because Miami-Dade, in his view, would lose the ability to host major concerts and football and soccer games.
At the end of almost two hours of discussion, commissioners voted 9-4 in favor of the resolution, and told Mayor Carlos Gimenez to begin negotiating with the Dolphins immediately. Gimenez catapulted to office in large part because of his stubborn, aggressive stance against the Marlins deal. Former Mayor Carlos Alvarez was recalled partly because of his support for the ballpark.
“I look at what the Dolphins have on the table as the starting point. And when I go buy a car, I never pay full price,” said Gimenez.
Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa and Commissioners Bovo, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez voted against the measure. Voting in favor were Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss, Juan C. Zapata and Barbara Jordan, who sponsored the measure.
A majority of commissioners agreed with Sosa — even though she voted against — when she said it was “totally unfair to judge the proposal of the Dolphins because of the Marlins.”
Moss’ fear of “going down the road we went down before” was set aside by Gimenez.
“I will never bring anything to this body anywhere near the financing of the Marlins deal,” said Gimenez, recounting how one $80 million Marlins bond will cost the county close to $1.2 billion when it is finally paid off, and how refinancing it isn’t possible.
Commissioners on both sides emphasized the public’s opposition to the Marlins deal, which the commission approved in 2009.
“This is not the Florida Marlins,” said Heyman, who voted against the Marlins deal but in favor of the Dolphins’ measure Wednesday. “It is something completely different.”
How do the two deals compare?
Both rely on Miami-Dade hotel taxes for the bulk of the government funding, though the Marlins used a small portion of general county funds and the Dolphins would use a small portion of general state funds.
The Dolphins would use public money to pay for 49 percent of the renovation of the team’s privately owned stadium. The Marlins deal used public dollars for 75 percent of the new baseball stadium and parking complex, both of which are government-owned.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross would contribute $201 million in private money for the renovations. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria contributed $155 million in private dollars (though $35 million of that was borrowed by Miami-Dade and is being paid back through yearly rent payments to the county that will range between $2million and $5 million for the next 35 years).
Miami-Dade is also paying back $50 million in Marlins-stadium debt using revenue from property taxes-- the same pot of money used to pay police, road repair and other government expenses. The Marlins expense was wrapped into the Orange Bowl renovation that voters approved in 2004 as part of the Building Better Communities bond package. The property-tax debt made up approximately 10 percent of the overall government financing for Marlins Park.
Under the state bill endorsed by commissioners, the Dolphins would receive a new $3 million annual subsidy for the stadium paid out of the state’s general fund.
The Dolphins pay $3 million a year in county property taxes. The Marlins pay no rent aside from the financing costs tied to the $35 million county loan
The Dolphins introduced their plan at a Jan. 14 press conference. Since then, they have been meeting with various entities to answer questions and allay fears of similarities with the dreaded Marlins deal. The team has said it is not wedded to the funding sources it has identified if alternatives are possible.
Auto magnate Norman Braman has denounced Ross’ attempt to use public money, saying his fellow billionaire doesn’t need the public’s help.
The team also could get some help from the NFL, which reserves funds for stadium projects. Those funds are created through a revenue-sharing system in the league, are considered loans. They go only to teams that are able to secure some public financing.
Dolphins spokesman Ric Katz called the NFL money “speculative” until legislation passes supporting the Dolphins’ financing plan.
The Dolphins have one of the largest debt loads in the NFL. Ross inherited a $210 million renovation bill when he bought the team from Wayne Huizenga in 2007. Overall, the team, valued at $1.06 billion by Forbes magazine, has $380 million in debt.
This story was revised to correct the source of property-tax dollars in the Marlins deal.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.