Raquel Regalado and Norman Braman are suing to block Miami-Dade from subsidizing the SkyRise Miami observation tower, pairing the politically ambitious school board member with the politically active billionaire.
The suit filed Thursday is thick with political story lines, potentially revealing a significant alliance for the 2016 county mayoral race. It has Regalado suing Miami, the city her father leads as mayor, and attacking a controversial subsidy championed by the man she may try to unseat next year, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
Filed in Miami-Dade circuit court, the suit lists Braman and Regalado as plaintiffs against Miami and Miami-Dade County. It rests on the ballot language used in an August 2014 referendum in Miami that gave developer Jeff Berkowitz permission to lease city waterfront for the 1,000-foot-tall tourist attraction. The ballot item described SkyRise as a “privately funded” venture, and the lawsuit claims the $9 million subsidy package Berkowitz secured from the county after the election violated a condition of the city referendum.
“It’s about transparency and accountability,” Regalado, a school board member, said in an interview Thursday. “At the end of the day, the ballot language said no public money should be utilized. Then no public money should be utilized.”
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Berkowitz declined comment on the suit without reading it. But he added: “We made it very clear we weren’t asking the city of Miami to fund any portion of this project, and we’re not.”
The lawsuit also puts Braman publicly in Regalado’s corner as Gimenez prepares to unveil his first fund-raising haul for the 2016 cycle. People in the mayor's inner circle privately say they're looking for a large infusion of campaign cash to discourage would-be challengers like Regalado and County Commissioner Xavier Suarez from taking on Gimenez.
In an interview Thursday, Braman said he plans an active role in the 2016 mayoral race, saying he will back “a candidate who gives a damn about how taxpayer dollars are spent.” He said he blamed Gimenez for the SkyRise funding at the heart of the suit. “Mayor Gimenez was the prime sponsor of bypassing taxpayers,” Braman said. “It wouldn’t have happened without him.”
The auto magnate used his fortune to fund the 2011 recall of Carlos Alvarez, Gimenez's predecessor, but then failed to unseat commissioners he had targeted in 2012. Regalado, a radio host, said she’s considering a run for county mayor in 2016, or to succeed her father, Tomás Regalado, as Miami mayor in 2017.
Before Thursday’s suit, SkyRise served as a proxy battle between Mayor Regalado and Mayor Gimenez, with Raquel Regalado’s political ambitions looming in the background as intriguing context.
Mayor Regalado campaigned for the SkyRise referendum, which passed overwhelmingly Aug. 26 with 68 percent of the vote. But the city mayor later withdrew his support for the project, saying he wasn’t aware Berkowitz wanted county dollars for his project.
While Berkowitz’s county funding request wasn’t public before the city vote, his pursuit of state dollars for SkyRise had been reported months before the referendum took place. He also had written city officials about his county request in early 2014, but Mayor Regalado said he hadn’t seen the notice.
SkyRise’s pursuit of county tax dollars didn’t become public until Oct. 15, when Gimenez announced he wanted $9 million earmarked for the project. Gimenez administration officials said they delayed proposing the SkyRise funding until after the referendum, since a No vote would have killed the project.
In defending the referendum campaign, Berkowitz also noted the tower itself, which will have thrill rides, restaurants and a private club, is being funded with private investor dollars. The county money would go to a package of “infrastructure” improvements Berkowitz needs around the city-owned site next to Bayside Marketplace, including roadwork and added parking.
The county dollars would refund Berkowitz for the infrastructure work once the project is completed. The Miami-based developer is raising the bulk of the $430 million overseas under a federal program that offers green cards in exchange for investments.
Berkowitz, Gimenez and other SkyRise fans see the tower as the kind of iconic attraction that will boost tourism, and the project’s attendance forecasts of 3 million visitors a year have it becoming a bigger draw in Miami than the Eiffel Tower is now in Paris. Detractors call the projects far too ambitious, and see the hairpin-style as an eyesore that will mar the downtown skyline.
After two tries, Miami-Dade commissioners on Dec. 16 voted 7-3 to accept Gimenez’s recommendation that SkyRise receive $9 million from a $75 million business-grant program tied to property taxes. Berkowitz was a top contributor to incumbents in the last round of county-commission elections 2014, and also a significant backer of Gimenez's mayoral campaigns in 2011 and 2012.
Though Mayor Regalado wrote county commissioners urging them to reject the SkyRise money, Raquel Regalado did not speak out against the plan during public hearings on the matter.
In reviving the SkyRise issue with a lawsuit, she's turning to a third offensive against a county plan backed by Gimenez. Regalado, a one-time intellectual-property lawyer who no longer practices, rose to prominence last year when she led the opposition against higher taxes for a new $390 million county courthouse.
A second offensive against Gimenez, targeting him for inaction on the high number of property-tax appeals in the county's appraisal system, stalled in recent weeks when she failed to have her fellow school board members join in a teacher-union lawsuit against the county. Michael Hernández, Gimenez’s communications chief, dismissed the SkyRise suit as another legal gambit aimed at boosting Regalado’s profile. “It’s the suit du jour,” he said. “Mayor Gimenez will keep on governing. Raquel Regalado appears to want to keep on suing.”
The county’s $75 million economic-development program lets Miami-Dade borrow money to help for-profit ventures, then make the needed bond payments using a special county property tax tied to voter-approved debt. The program was tucked into a much larger infrastructure ballot initiative that county voters approved in 2004 as part of a $2.9 billion bond referendum.
Though the $75 million program sat idle for 10 years, all but $15 million has been allocated since the Gimenez administration began recommending earmarks last summer. Among the planned recipients: a proposed movie studio, a private-jet hangar, and a theme park developers want to build next to Zoo Miami.
Those grant dollars are baked into planned increases in the county debt tax through 2020, with the tax slated for a 50 percent increase in 2016, according to county forecasts released in the fall. The economic grants would make up a tiny portion of the increase, which funds increased borrowing from the $2.9 billion program approved in 2004.
Represented by the Miami lawfirm Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, Braman and Regalado argue the county funding conflicts with the city referendum by adding public dollars to a project sold to voters as “privately funded.” It asks a court to either strike down the funding approval or the referendum itself.
Raquel Regalado and Braman have been working to bring a new Miami-Dade school to downtown Miami, a plan that has drawn fire for giving wealthy residents an alternative to a half-full high school in nearby Overtown. While Braman bankrolled the recall campaign that gave Gimenez an opening to run for mayor, Braman sat out the two mayoral elections following Alvarez’s ouster in 2011.
Braman and Gimenez were allied in opposing Alvarez’s deeply unpopular financing deal for Marlins Park in 2009, but split last year over Gimenez’s own successful effort to steer county subsidies to the Miami Dolphins in order to renovate Sun Life Stadium. In late 2014, Braman commissioned a poll to test Regalado’s chances against Gimenez, though the results of that survey haven’t been made public.
In the interview, Braman stopped short of endorsing Regalado as a candidate for county mayor. “I haven’t made any decisions as to anybody who I’m going to support,” he said. “I have great respect for Raquel. I think she’s done a wonderful job on the school board.”