Building a new civil courthouse would cost Miami-Dade County about $540 million and require property owners to pay a higher annual tax rate to fund it, Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration said Thursday.
Voters would have to approve the financing, which would require the issuance of new government bond debt. That debt would push up the portion of property taxes that pays for big-ticket capital projects.
A homeowner in an unincorporated neighborhood such as Kendall with a taxable property value of $200,000 would pay about $18 more a year, according to the report Gimenez sent county commissioners.
The board had asked to have the analysis in hand before its next meeting on Sept. 3 — likely the last day to decide whether to put a courthouse question on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Bertila Soto, chief judge over Florida’s 11th judicial circuit, has been pushing for a new building, saying the historic Dade County Courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. is too old and too small.
“No one wants to put another burden on voters,” Soto said in an interview last month. But, she added, “everything’s come to a head.”
Gimenez and Clerk of the Courts Harvey Ruvin have backed the idea of constructing a new facility. Soto also has the support of well-heeled attorneys who would have to lead any political effort, since judges are restricted from full-fledged campaigning.
“The legal community wanted it yesterday,” Soto said of a new courthouse.
But the politics for funding could be thorny. Miami-Dade voters have been hit up for money already over the past two years. They signed off on $1.2 billion for public schools in 2012 and on $830 million for the Jackson Health System in 2013.
Earlier this week, listeners who called into Spanish-language radio station WAQI-AM (710) — the longtime bastion for Cuban-American conservatives, known as Radio Mambí — bashed the idea of paying a higher property-tax rate for a new courthouse. A new Broward County courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale is being funded by an existing sales tax.
Not all commissioners are on board, either. One of them, Juan C. Zapata, has publicly criticized the proposal as rushed.
In his report, Gimenez said constructing a new facility on county-owned property would cost between $353 million and $368 million. An additional $25 million would be needed to maintain the existing courthouse — nearly 90 years old — for up to five more years, the approximate amount of time it would take to design and construct a new building. Those dollar amounts don’t include the costs to borrow the money.
As part of the financial arrangement, Miami-Dade would refund $132 million in existing debt that had helped finance the new Family Courthouse Center and new Children’s Courthouse. By paying that back, the county would free up about $13 million in traffic surcharge dollars to fund court operations.
Gimenez’s administration asked HOK Architects, the firm that designed the Children’s Courthouse, to estimate how much a civil courthouse on county-owned land would cost. The firm estimated $353 million.
That was lower than the $368 million that All Aboard Florida, the company planning to run passenger trains from Miami to Orlando, came up with if it were to incorporate a courthouse as part of a public-private partnership into its three-million-square-foot downtown train station complex next to County Hall.
The estimates assumed a 620,000-square-foot new courthouse with enough space for 52 courtrooms and the necessary administrative staff to support them. Today, the 274,000-square-foot courthouse, where 41 judges work, has 26 courtrooms, though some of them are closed for renovations. Judges have to stagger their calendars to fit their cases, according to Soto, and sometimes a single trial can take place in several courtrooms over the course of a few days.
“This new plan highlights how vastly undersized the existing courthouse is to meet the current and future programming needs of the Courts,” Gimenez’s report says.
A new facility could fit on a county parcel east of the new Children’s Courthouse, which has yet to open at Northwest Third Street and Second Avenue, if the building were 20 to 25 stories high. Building there would require doing away with a surface parking lot created for the Children’s Courthouse and incorporating a garage for judges into the new structure. Staff and the public would have to park in other downtown garages, or use public transportation.
Other possibilities: building on the lot west of County Hall used to park government vehicles, or demolishing county offices at 140 W. Flagler St. and constructing there.
Acquiring private property could cost about $9 million to $11 million, according to Gimenez’s report. A parcel would have to be about 30,000 square feet.