Miami-Dade commission approves ballot questions for FIU expansion, new courthouse

Voters will be asked if they want to help pay for a replacement civil courthouse, and if FIU should be allowed to take over the Youth Fair grounds.

09/03/2014 6:00 AM

09/03/2014 9:20 PM

Miami-Dade County voters will decide in November whether to raise their property taxes to pay nearly $400 million for a replacement courthouse, and whether to allow Florida International University to expand into county parkland occupied by the Youth Fair.

The County Commission voted Wednesday to put both items on the Nov. 4 ballot after both issues drew lengthy debate, with Miami-Dade’s legal industry pushing hard for voters to take up the courthouse question and FIU busing in students to pack the chambers in support of the park question. In the end, neither vote was close, with commissioners overwhelmingly backing referendums on both items.

If the courthouse question passes, it would give commissioners the authority to increase property taxes enough to borrow $393 million for a replacement to the county’s aging civil courthouse. If the FIU question passes, the state school would win the waiver needed to expand into the youth fair’s current home in Tamiami Park, though Miami-Dade still needs to find replacement fairgrounds — and FIU must find a way to pay for the move.

“Miami-Dade County certainly will not be spending any money on the expansion of FIU,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.

The courthouse referendum passed first. It was part of a packed agenda for the commission, which returned for its first full meeting after an August break. Commissioners voted 11-2 in favor of putting the courthouse to a vote. Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, Vice-Chairwoman Lynda Bell and commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez supported it. Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Juan C. Zapata opposed it.

The vote followed pleas from judges, court workers and attorneys who described the nearly 90-year-old Dade County Courthouse as an embarrassment.

“I believe it is a safety and a health risk — not only for the public but for all the workers that are there,” Heyman said.

Zapata didn’t dispute the need but questioned why commissioners were forced to tackle the ballot question on an emergency basis. This week is the deadline for getting an item on the upcoming ballot, and county lawyers were tweaking the proposed language to satisfy commissioner concerns during the debates.

“I’m exhausted over this eternal sense of emergency we have around here for everything,” Zapata said. “I’m very uncomfortable putting this before the voters without doing everything possible” to avoid asking them for money.

The three-hour discussion began with Judge Bertila Soto, chief of the 11th judicial circuit, speaking next to blown-up photographs showing the courthouse’s disrepair. In a display of political force, she stood next to Clerk of the Courts Harvey Ruvin, State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle — both officials elected countywide — and several judges. All decried the building’s condition.

“It’s appalling,” said Fernández Rundle, whose grand jury meets in the building. “That courthouse is in absolute shameful condition.”

Gimenez floated the idea of a $40 increase to county traffic tickets to fund at least part of the costs for the courthouse, but he told commissioners he endorsed the tax plan. The county would borrow $393 million to be paid by an increase in property taxes that would amount to about $7 a year for every $100,000 of a property’s assessed value.

Miami-Dade has identified several possible downtown locations for the new courthouse, including the proposed All Aboard Florida rail station, county land next to the new Children’s Courthouse and a site currently occupied by a county office building at 140 W. Flagler St.

There was no mention Wednesday of clear alternatives for where to relocate the youth fair, and FIU’s advocates emphasized the ballot question only allows the school to move toward expansion.

“Things are going to be very fluid once we move from here,” said Richard Perez, a Holland & Knight attorney representing FIU.

Youth fair supporters opposed the referendum, saying it was premature without a plan for a new home for the expo. The fair has been on the park grounds at Coral Way and Southwest 107th Avenue for 43 years. It is separate from ballfields and other amenities that make up Tamiami Park.

“Our fair expo clients are concerned about booking events,” said Robert Hohenstein, president of the nonprofit Miami-Dade County Youth Fair & Exposition. Of the ballot question, he added, “it is vague, it is misleading, and it is incredibly premature.”

A long-term lease between the county and the fair puts Miami-Dade on the hook to find another expo site and pay for the move if it wants to break the agreement, which runs through 2040 with extensions until 2085. A county consultant concluded last year that relocation costs could amount to up to $80 million in construction and another $150 million in road and service improvements.

Bell noted the fairgrounds are home to a year-round schedule of events. “This is a well-utilized site that brings great value to Miami-Dade County,” she said.

FIU wants to build new student housing, parking and research and academic facilities at an estimated cost of about $900 million. The university initially talked about expanding onto the full 86 fairground acres on Tamiami Park, but then revised its proposal down to 64 acres. That would leave existing fairground buildings in place for summer camps, youth athletics and a hurricane shelter.

The university used six buses to bring in blue-shirted supporters to fill the chambers and ground floor of County Hall, where at one point FIU’s Golden Panther mascot prowled the crowd. The youth fair deployed red-shirted supporters, and both groups kept most of the seats occupied for about nine hours as commissioners worked toward a vote. The debate included about a 30-minute exploration of whether the word “complete” should be used to modify the word “relocation” on the ballot question.

In the end, “complete” didn’t make the cut and commissioners voted to send the question to voters. Only Bell voted no. But commissioners who supported the item warned that FIU still faces the twin challenges of the youth fair’s future home and persuading Miami-Dade voters.

“Do not think it is a slam dunk,” said Bovo, the FIU item’s sponsor. “A lot of people in my community are big supporters of the youth fair.”

On the Nov. 4 ballot

A new courthouse:

“Shall the county fund emergency repairs to the 1928 courthouse and the acquisition and construction of new court facilities by issuing, in one or more series, general obligation bonds paid or secured by taxes derived from the assessed value of property in the county (ad valorem taxes), potentially increasing property taxes, in a principal amount up to 393 million dollars, bearing interest not exceeding maximum legal rate, and maturing within 30 years from issuance?”

FIU’s expansion:

“The Dade County youth fair site at Tamiami Park is exempt from the public park purposes use restrictions and construction limitations in Article 7 of the charter. Shall the charter be amended to:

Extend this exemption to Florida International University (FIU) for its expansion onto up to 64 acres of such site upon relocation of the youth fair; and

Provide that no county funds be used for FIU’s expansion and the youth fair’s required location?”

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