Miami-Dade commissioners balk at plan for business grants

Miami-Dade commissioners on Thursday stalled an effort to use property taxes to fund about $40 million in business grants for projects that included a private-jet hangar, charter school complex and production facility.

After harsh questioning by Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, the commission’s economic-development committee voted to delay considering a request by Mayor Carlos Gimenez to rewrite the rules of a dormant program aimed at recruiting large business ventures. The Gimenez administration wants to allow smaller businesses to use $75 million set aside from a 2004 ballot initiative that gave Miami-Dade authority to use property taxes to borrow $3 billion over several decades for a long list of infrastructure and construction projects.

“I think we had a really good idea that turned into something it wasn’t supposed to become,’’ Zapata said. “If we scream ‘jobs’ loud enough, this will somehow make this a good idea.’’

The current rules tied to the 2004 Building Better Communities bond program limited economic-development grants to $10 million a piece, a restriction aimed at reserving the borrowed funds to businesses and projects large enough to be “game-changing” for the economy, according to a 2010 memo setting rules for the program.

By waiving those rules, Gimenez’s staff want to give $5 million infrastructure grants to six businesses, including Miami Ocean Studios, a planned studio and production campus in northwest Miami-Dade and a for-profit medical school planned by Larkin Health in southern Miami-Dade. The money would reimburse businesses for costs tied to roadwork, sewage hookups and other infrastructure expenses, as well as for public parking facilities, according to presentation documents.

“We are trying to deal with the economy now, rather than the economy they were dealing with in 2004,’’ Jack Osterholt, the deputy mayor overseeing economic-development, said after the meeting. “We wanted projects that were sustainable, and would keep people working.”

The proposed grants, along with money tied to a similar BBC program without a $10 million threshold, include backing for projects tied to several influential people.

Improvements in Miami’s Design District, a popular retail destination controlled by Craig Robins, a top art collector, would get $1 million. Miami-Dade would earmark $5 million for a commercial project backed by the foundation of former congresswoman Carrie Meek.

Another $5 million would go to the Orion private-jet terminal, an Opa-locka business partially owned by Leonard Abess, who famously sold City National Bank of Florida in 2008 for $945 million and then gave $60 million of the profits to employees. A charter-school complex in Palmetto Bay backed Wayne Rosen, one of the top contributors to Miami-Dade commissioners’ reelection efforts, would get $5 million.

After the meeting, Rosen said his Parkside at Palmetto Bay project, which includes retail and housing, would bring jobs to the heart of the village.

“We are the catalyst to get that downtown district started,” he said. “I believe in the redevelopment of their downtown district, and I’m willing to stay the course to get this project under construction, to create jobs and create a downtown district that I can be very proud of.”

Rosen’s venture sparked one of several tense moments during the hearing, with speakers noting he was the top contributor to Commissioner Lynda Bell, who chairs the committee and was running the meeting.

“We have a county commissioner sponsoring this project who is running for reelection and the project would benefit her largest campaign contributor,” Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner said shortly after Bell called her up for a requested speaking slot. Bell said she sponsored the resolution needed to fund the Rosen project only because she represents Palmetto Bay, and that the mayor’s office approved the applicants. “This under the purview of the mayor,’’ she said.

Rosen also dismissed the suggestion that the grant would be related to his campaign contributions to Bell. “My projects are approved on their merits, and there’s no outsiders pushing it,” he said.

The motion to defer voting on the grant proposals passed 3 to 1, with Commissioner Barbara Jordan objecting to the delay. “We have timelines tied to this list,’’ she said.

Thursday’s debate centered on a tiny portion of the 2004 Building Better Communities program, which passed overwhelmingly when voters endorsed eight ballot questions. The words “economic development” didn’t appear on the ballot, but an appendix approved projects tied to the planned bond sales earmarked $75 million for business-grant program.

Despite having 10 years of economic boom and bust, Miami-Dade has yet to tap the borrowing authority tied to the proposed business grants. The Beacon Council, the county’s economic-development arm, hoped to use about $15 million for a major air show near the Homestead air base, but the project failed to win needed backing from the Pentagon.

Frank Nero, head of the Beacon Council from 1996 to 2013, said the new guidelines abandon the original plan’s intent.

“One of the reasons we put in the $10-million threshold was to keep it from being divvied up by commission district,’’ said Nero, who was ousted by the Beacon Council board last year in part over scrapes with Gimenez. “You’re borrowing the money. It better be a significant project because you’re going to be paying off the bonds for 20 or 30 years.”

Along with the business grants, the Gimenez plan would use $18.5 million from the economic-development allocation for beach re nourishment along Miami-Dade’s coast. Thursday’s vote defers taking up the entire recommendation for 30 days.

Dollars for the BBC program come from a countywide property tax reserved solely for debt payments on voter-approved bonds. Commissioners decide when to borrow more money for the BBC program, and Miami-Dade next year will pay about $75 million in debt service tied to the $2.9 billion initiative, according to the latest budget proposal. Projects funded including the Miami Port Tunnel, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, bridge repairs and library construction.

Osterholt said the administration planned to stagger payouts from the proposed business-grant program so that Miami-Dade could avoid increasing debt service tied to the property tax. That would mean the program would have no impact on the tax rate. Either way, the program would have no impact on next year’s budget.

Larry Williams, the current Beacon Council chief, cautioned against dismissing an effort to help smaller businesses grow.

“These are the type of things that lay the foundation for economic development,’’ he said. “These investments can be game changers.”

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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