A $48 million bailout package for the Frost Science Museum faces a showdown vote Tuesday in the Miami-Dade County Commission, and the tax-funded rescue seems likely to pass. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be surprises.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez wants Miami-Dade to borrow up to $48 million and use the money to finish construction on the $305 million new home for the Frost on Miami’s waterfront. Miami-Dade has already borrowed $165 million against county property taxes for the project, part of a voter-approved 2004 bond referendum, but museum officials were unable to raise the private donations needed to complete the building.
Gimenez describes the plan as a fiscal wash, since Miami-Dade would pay the debt using county hotel taxes that his administration had planned to propose as a $4 million yearly operating subsidy for the Frost. Though grumbling has been widespread, there has not yet been an outcry from commissioners opposing Gimenez’s plan.
Here are five things to watch for before Tuesday’s vote at County Hall, which is scheduled to follow a public hearing where anyone can address the proposal.
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Will the Frosts speak?
Phillip and Patricia Frost, the billionaire couple who are the museum’s top private benefactors, have not yet publicly discussed the non-profit’s troubles or their motivations behind ousting the former board in exchange for providing the Frost some short-term financial help.
At a March 17 committee hearing on the proposed bailout, Commissioner Xavier Suarez said for the final vote he’d like to hear from Dr. Frost, a healthcare magnate who is one of the wealthiest people in South Florida. “I was hoping he would show up for the committee,” Suarez said to Cesar Alvarez, a prominent Miami lawyer and the Frosts’ hand-picked chairman of the new museum board. “But it looks like the best we can do is for the board as a whole.”
“Absolutely,” Alvarez said. Added Michael Spring, the Gimenez deputy overseeing the Frost: “That’s the plan, sir.” Spring later said he expected both Phillip Frost and Patricia, who actually sits on the museum board, to speak Tuesday.
Will Raquel Regalado attack Gimenez?
The school board member is challenging Gimenez in the 2016 mayoral race and already has come out publicly against his Frost plan. Tuesday’s hearing would give her two minutes to say what she wants, most likely with Gimenez in the chambers. It’s worth noting that the Gimenez plan requires the Frost to rework its board so that about a third of the members are appointed by local governments, including five seats from the city of Miami, where Regalado’s father is mayor.
Will county commissioners demand a firing?
Audrey Edmonson, the commissioner whose district includes the Frost, told the Miami Herald last week she wanted someone from the museum “fired” over the Frost debacle. That would seem a clear broadside against Gillian Thomas, the Frost CEO who presided over the construction project.
A Frost spokesman said Monday that Thomas has pledged to remain in her post to “see the project through” and then make sure a new CEO is ready to lead the museum in the future. Privately, Thomas has said she plans to retire once the museum opens and the former board discussed her replacement. One element of the Gimenez plan gives him veto power over who the museum selects as its next chief executive.
County officials also could feel some heat Tuesday, since Miami-Dade had paid about $160 million to the Frost before realizing in October that the construction project was $50 million more costly than they had expected and on the brink of shutting down for lack of funds. On Monday, the county’s Inspector General office released a report critical of the Gimenez administration’s oversight of the Frost construction project.
Will commissioners press on a possible subsidy from anti-blight tax districts?
A spin-off controversy over the Frost bailout emerged when Gimenez released a memo mentioning the possibility of Frost’s seeking operating help from the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, a tax district formed to combat slum and blight in northern downtown. Gimenez’s memo dealt with a possible extension of the CRA, and listed Frost as one of multiple would-be beneficiaries.
The proposal sparked a backlash from the new Miami commissioner who leads the CRA, Ken Russell, who said he would oppose sending anti-blight dollars to the Frost. The Frost’s sister property, the Perez Art Museum Miami, already receives help from the Omni CRA, as does the nearby Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Like most CRAs, the Omni diverts city and county property taxes to projects within the district’s boundaries. As part of his bailout proposal, Gimenez is requiring Frost to pledge not seek any additional direct county aid until Miami-Dade pays off the debt tied to the rescue.
Will Frost reveal some good news?
Tuesday could be a great time to disclose a major naming-rights sponsor or some other donation that would suggest the museum had turned a financial corner on its way to a planned November opening.