The politics involved in asking Miami-Dade County taxpayers for more money to build a new civil courthouse are so delicate that three county commissioners met Thursday in a judge’s cramped chambers to try to work through their differences before a vote by the full commission next week.
The public meeting revealed disagreement among the commissioners over what should be on a proposed ballot question seeking $540 million that could go before county voters in the Nov. 4 general election — and skepticism over whether there should be a referendum at all.
“From the standpoint of need, I understand it completely,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the commission’s finance committee.
But he questioned the $540 million figure — which would include the costs of building a new courthouse on county-owned property, putting $25 million toward repairs for the current courthouse and refinancing an existing $132 million debt. Since 2012, taxpayers have approved $1.2 billion in new government debt for public schools and $830 million for the Jackson Health System.
“Obviously, there is fatigue in our community,” he said.
Commissioner Xavier Suarez convened the gathering with Bovo and Commissioner Sally Heyman at the historic Dade County Courthouse to rally support before the commission vote that is scheduled for Wednesday. About 20 people, including Bertila Soto, chief judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit, crowded Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey’s chambers before taking a tour highlighting the building’s disrepair.
The tour included walking into a room crammed with three clerks’ desks, inhaling musty air in first-floor administrative offices, and hearing Bailey describe an ongoing termite infestation.
No one argued against a new courthouse. The existing one was completed in 1928, and has long been too small for Miami-Dade’s civil-case docket. Renovations have been undertaken over the years, yet the county has known since the 1980s that it would eventually need to build a larger courthouse.
But not everyone at Thursday’s meeting agreed on how to pay for it. In Florida, counties are responsible for building and maintaining courts, and the state pays to staff and operate them.
Though the school district is not involved, Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado attended the meeting and criticized the courthouse plan for not being detailed enough. She questioned the idea that All Aboard Florida, the company that plans to launch passenger train service between Miami and Orlando, could build Miami-Dade a courthouse as part of a public-private partnership.
In a memo to commissioners, Mayor Carlos Gimenez also listed county-owned property near the new Children’s Courthouse or on Flagler Street as possible courthouse locations.
“You can’t ask people to give you money to build something that you don’t have a complete plan for,” Regalado said. “You can’t even tell people where it’s going to be.”
It is also unclear what would happen to the existing courthouse.
“All the other details can be worked out in the meantime,” Heyman said.
That prompted Regalado to counter: “It’s going to fail.”
In a Thursday night town-hall meeting with residents at the West Dade library, Gimenez said he’s not ready to back asking voters to raise property taxes for a courthouse. “A good number of people may not see the need for” a new courthouse, Gimenez said in an interview afterwards. “Am I confident they’ll approve it? No, I’m not.”
Gimenez said he’s asked his finance team for other funding options. “We need a new courthouse,” he said. “The courthouse is completely antiquated.”
Judge Soto said her team considered other funding sources, including asking the state to raise court-filing fees, or increasing the $30 facility assessment tacked onto traffic tickets, which helped pay for the county’s family and juvenile courts. Court-filing fees would have to increase statewide, though, and higher facility assessments would make tickets too expensive for drivers and, in any event, not bring in enough money, she said.
Building in the city of Miami’s Omni Community Redevelopment Area, which Regalado suggested, would not work because the CRA isn’t committing to new projects, according to Soto.
Attorney Joe Serota said raising private donations would take too long, citing the $1.25 million he helped collect to restore the courthouse’s lobby and a courtroom. “That was eight years of work by the legal community,” he said.
In Broward County, commissioners diverted a half-cent sales tax from other uses to provide most of the funding for a $328 million courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale that has been under construction for two years.
If Miami-Dade commissioners do go to the voters, Bovo, Heyman and Suarez said they dislike asking them to refinance existing debt. Heyman and Suarez also mulled whether the bond could go to “other needed court facilities” — such as a potential satellite branch in West Miami-Dade. The promise of a new building might help them politically, they bluntly admitted.
“We’re going to lose a couple of commissioners, not to mention the general public,” without an incentive, Suarez said. Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who represents West Dade, has questioned the courthouse referendum.
Replacing the civil courthouse was not considered the county’s top priority in a 2007-08 courts master plan. It was the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building — the criminal courthouse — that was called most overcrowded and inadequate.
Stepped-up deterioration has moved the civil courthouse to first on the list, Soto argued, though she acknowledged that the Gerstein building would need help soon.
The criminal courthouse “doesn’t have the structural problems that this one does,” she said.
No funds were set aside for future court buildings after the master plan was completed.
That inaction makes it difficult to ask taxpayers for more money, said Bovo, who likened the situation to the county’s crumbling sewer pipes, which are now being fixed under a federal mandate that forced Miami-Dade to raise user rates.
“We’ve done this dance with water and sewer, where neglect for years . . . is going to hit all of us in the pocket,” he said. “No one wants to confront these issues when they start.”
Proposed ballot question
“Shall the county fund emergency repairs to the 1928 courthouse, acquisition and construction of new court facilities, and the refinancing of existing court facilities debt by issuing, from time to time, general obligation bonds paid or secured by taxes derived from the assessed value of property in the county (ad valorem taxes) in a principal amount not exceeding $540,000,000 bearing interest not exceeding maximum legal rate, and maturing within 30 years from issuance?”