Miami Gardens / Opa-locka

Miami Gardens

Miami Gardens leaders are vague on how bond money will be spent

 

ldixon@MiamiHerald.com

Miami Gardens voters will soon decide in a referendum whether to allow the city to borrow $60 million, to be repaid through a tax increase. But many residents still feel like there hasn’t been enough information presented on how the bond money will be spent.

The bond, according to the city, would be paid out over the next 25 years and would cost the average household in Miami Gardens about $46.28 per year . That’s based on the city’s average taxable home value of about $34,000 after the homestead exemption, and a tax increase of about $1.36 per $1,000 in taxable home value, according to city estimates.

The tax hike works out to a 19 percent increase over the current rate of about $6.94 per $1,000 in taxable property value.

Voters will receive their ballots beginning April 1 and have until April 21 to decide on the bond issue. The city said it will continue to hold additional formal and informal meetings going forward.

The City Council first voted last May on a resolution to explore plans for a general-obligation bond. It was originally proposed at $50 million dollars to be used for retrofitting and renovation of the city’s 18 parks, building a senior center, purchasing new equipment and buying new land for parks.

In the months that followed, Mayor Oliver Gilbert gave a preliminary idea for what the bond would do and how much it might cost at his State of the City address, Councilwoman Lillie Odom held a town hall meeting in August, but there were not many formal discussions beyond mention of the potential bond at City Council meetings.

In November, the city passed a resolution to increase the bond by $10 million for new police surveillance equipment. After that, the first public meeting was announced for February.

Moving forward, the city says it plans to create a website where residents can track the projects and get an estimate on what their monthly costs would be. The city also established an oversight committee and plan to bring in a financial adviser to oversee the projects.

By comparison, when Miami-Dade County Schools proposed their $1.2 billion general obligation bond in 2012, they established a website and prepared at least two proposals for how the bond would roll out and the proposed projects for each school in the county before residents voted.

City Manager Cameron Benson and the mayor have said in the past few months that they did not want to designate particular plans at certain sites or designate certain amounts at different locations without community input.

“I cannot come to you and say I’ve designated $5 million for this project in your community and not have community input from you,” Benson told residents at a community meeting last week. “I think that would be unfair and quite honestly I think you would not like that.”

But residents, like Melissa Williams, have said the lack of a list of projects and their potential placement concerns her.

“You can tell us right now tonight what your intentions are, but later on those funds may not be there,” Williams told city officials.

Other residents questioned the necessity of the bond and how the city arrived at the proposed amount. Benson said the amount was originally based on community meetings about city improvements held in 2007 that led to a list of $100 million in proposed projects.

The city received some assistance to pay for those projects when it received nearly $10 million as part of the county’s Building Better Communities general obligation bond in 2005, to assist with park projects over five years. Benson said that that funding, along with other grants and loans the city received over the years have either been completely spent, will run out soon, or can’t be used for the projects the city has planned.

“We have to look for alternative ways to fund the improvements in those park areas,” Benson said. “The only way we can move forward is if we as a city make that investment into our community.”

If the bond passes, Benson said that a portion of the money has to be spent within the first three or four years, so residents would see early results. He said that’s why the city chose a general-obligation bond instead of trying to do smaller, incremental bonds and grants.

“If you go back to a piecemeal approach there may be a park done every year and you may to have wait another two years after you pay down the bond,” Benson said. “In this case, you’ll see immediate results in a three-to-four year period.”

With a “general obligation bond,” a city is promising to do whatever is necessary to repay the loan — including raising property taxes. This kind of bond requires voter approval. In contrast, “special-obligation bonds” promise only a limited collateral, such as money from the tax on cable bills, without voter approval.

Instead of going to a bank, cities sell the bonds — basically IOUs — to private investors. Because the city is promising to use its taxing power to repay the debt, investors usually consider municipal bonds a low-risk investment. As a result, the cities usually get low interest rates.

Based on the community meetings, Miami Gardens many residents don’t appear to have much of an issue with paying the added money, but some are concerned about what they see as a hurried process. The mayor said the council decided not to delay the vote until the city’s general election in August because they want to take advantage of the current bond market.

“It’s a favorable bond market and we don’t want interest to go up,” Gilbert said at a February meeting. “For every tenth of a percentage point, there’s an increase of $910,000 over the life of the bonds.”

Some residents who were in favor of the bond at the most recent meeting agree that improving parks will help children occupy their time and think the plan is sufficient enough as presented.

“If not this $60 million bond then what? This is an opportunity to advance the future,” resident Tessa McDonald said.

And Gilbert said the referendum was about more than just construction projects.

“You can think about $60 million and think about parks and cameras, I’m thinking about people,” the mayor said. “We know that we have to change the perception of who we are.”

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