In his escalating fight over Miami-Dade’s planned nine-month closure of the Venetian Causeway, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine wants the county to spend about $5 million speeding up the project instead of giving $9 million to SkyRise Miami.
“Under the current construction schedule (assuming no delays), the closure of the west bridge will adversely impact Art Basel and at least one-half of the entire winter season,” Levine wrote County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Friday. “Rather than use public dollars to subsidize private projects like ‘SkyRise Miami’ the taxpayers and I urge you to invest public dollars toward fixing our community’s critical infrastructure in an expedited manner.”
Gimenez’s office had no immediate comment, but previously had noted that SkyRise’s $9 million earmark is funded through an economic-development fund targeting long-term job creation. The Venetian closure on Monday eliminated a secondary route to South Beach, promising short-term complications when it comes to visiting the county’s most popular tourism destination. In his letter, Levine cited Basel, a popular December art show and one of the biggest weeks of the year for hotels.
The Venetian’s closure on Monday followed a push by Levine for Miami-Dade to spend the $4.7 million that the contractor says would allow the work to be finished within six months. That would speed up the project 33 percent and increase the cost by closer to 40 percent, according to estimates in letters released this week.
On Thursday, Gimenez wrote Levine to say he wasn’t convinced the contractor’s proposal included enough details to ensure a six-month completion. But he also offered to pursue the matter if Levine could secure city dollars to defray some added costs.
“With this information in mind, if you are interested in partnering with Miami-Dade County and providing funding from the City of Miami Beach to achieve the expedited construction schedule, please advise,” Gimenez wrote. “I am asking the City of Miami to consider participation as well.”
Levine replied on Friday: “The obligation to maintain the Venetian Causeway bridges rest squarely with the County.”
The SkyRise jab in Levine’s letter adds another layer to what may be the most complex spat on Miami-Dade’s political landscape. Gimenez championed funding for SkyRise, whose developer, Jeff Berkowitz, has been a top campaign donor to the mayor and county commissioners in past election cycles.
Gimenez’s lone announced opponent for the 2016 mayoral race, school-board member Raquel Regalado, joined forces with her top campaign patron, auto magnate Norman Braman, to file suit in February against Miami-Dade over the SkyRise funding. The other defendant in the suit: Miami, where Regalado’s father, Tomás, serves as mayor.
The suit claims the county subsidy package approved late last year violates terms of the August 2014 city referendum that gave SkyRise permission to rise on waterfront owned by Miami. The ballot item described a “privately funded” observation tower.
Lawyers for Miami and Miami-Dade (the city hired outside counsel given the mayor’s connection) noted Berkowitz notified the city, well before the referendum, that he was seeking county dollars, and that his pursuit of state subsidies was already the subject of news reports when the vote took place. Mayor Regalado campaigned for SkyRise, but now sides with his daughter in opposing county funding.
On Friday, the Miami mayor said he wasn’t interested in pursuing city dollars for the Venetian. “I don’t think we should be in the business of solving county roads” problems, Regalado said. He noted Miami has already approved a 24-hour noise waiver to allow overnight construction. “We’ve done our part,” he said.
Miami-Dade commissioners approved Gimenez’s $9 million SkyRise request as part of a larger award of $75 million worth of grants from an economic-development program that sat idle for 10 years. The money was originally reserved for large-scale projects, but the Gimenez administration asked for rule changes to allow for smaller awards.
Though the money has all been earmarked, commissioners still must approve final allocations once administration officials negotiate actual agreements with SkyRise and other recipients.
Meanwhile, commissioners are approving back-up awards should any of the existing ones fall through. In May, commissioners approved a $5 million grant for a private-jet facility at the county’s Opa-locka airport. The business, Turnberry Airport Holdings, is under the Turnberry corporate umbrella, the company owned by the billionaire brother-and-sister team of Jeff and Jackie Soffer.
The economic-development grants actually come from the same pool of money Miami-Dade is using to fund the $12.4 million repair of the western segment of the Venetian. The dollars stem from a $2.9 billion borrowing program that county voters authorized in 2004, which is paid back by a special property tax assigned to debt approved by referendum. Under county forecasts, that tax (currently costing $45 for every $100,000 of taxable value) is set to increase 50 percent in 2016.
One 2004 ballot item was dedicated to infrastructure projects, and the economic-development grants are limited to spending on infrastructure needs (like road improvements, utility hook-ups and parking open to the public) for SkyRise and other recipients. While all but one grant went to for-profit ventures, Miami-Dade commissioners did endorse using $6 million in economic-development money to improve Miami’s Flagler Street.