September 1, 2014

Crumbling courthouse an injustice

OUR OPINION: Let Miami-Dade voters decide if they want to build a new one

The residents of Miami-Dade County need a new civil courthouse in downtown Miami. The mold and peeling plaster, water intrusion and sodden case files, termite waste and broken toilets make that clear. Not so clear? How to pay for it.

A public campaign led by the courthouse’s top brass — Chief Judge Bertila Soto and Judge Jennifer Bailey, administrative judge for the circuit civil division — has been launched to alert the public to the iconic structure’s sorry state and win its support to build a new one.

Wednesday, court representatives will appeal to the Miami-Dade Commission to place on the November ballot a delicate question: Are Miami-Dade homeowners willing to pay an additional $18 a year in property taxes — give or take — for a bond issue to finance construction of a new courthouse?

Commissioners should put the question to voters, then it’s up to the county and to court advocates to make the case. They have a good one.

The amount of the bond is $393 million — which includes $25 million to keep the current courthouse functioning while a new one is built. Considering Broward County spent $315 million on its courthouse, the figure is not outrageous. Miami-Dade’s court operation is considerably larger.

The courthouse, at 73 W. Flagler St., opened in 1928 — 86 years ago. It’s the place where gangster Al Capone beat the rap, and would-be presidential assassin Giuseppe Zangara was convicted. But many moons have passed since those storied days. Ms. Soto and Ms. Bailey showed the Editorial Board photographs of the courthouse’s once-impressive interior, now a victim of old age: trash bins catching leaking water; exposed electrical wiring and rusting rebar; mold that causes serious air-quality issues.

Just as troubling, a January report found that 132 of the building’s 144 structural columns — basically, what’s holding the courthouse up — are corroded and the foundation slab is seriously compromised.

Then this: There are 23 courtrooms for 41 judges. For county residents who must enter the courthouse doors to settle a civil dispute, get a divorce or a marriage license, go into foreclosure or probate or confront a landlord, justice is delayed — even more so because if cases originally heard in one of the satellite courts around the county need a jury trial, it must be held at the downtown courthouse.

And here’s the kicker: Miami-Dade County is the landlord of this outdated, crumbling structure. The court is just the tenant. County taxpayers are already footing the bill to make expensive, and ultimately inadequate, repairs. Earlier this year, it cost the county $10,000 to fix one malfunctioning air-conditioner. And structure’s historic designation makes it harder to repair properly. Clearly, the economics don’t make sense.

Court representatives have appealed to the county for a new building — and according to state law, the county must provide a court facility. Mayor Carlos Gimenez told them there’s no money in general revenue — period. The team considered other options: charging more for traffic tickets, upping court filing fees. They even appealed to Tallahassee for a sales-tax increase. Those ideas died on the vine — which brought them to the bond issue.

Ms. Soto and Ms. Bailey pledge not to build a Taj Mahal. It would look like a functional courthouse, nothing fancy, they say. That’s important to taxpayers, wary of government excess. But they already are throwing good money after bad to keep the current courthouse habitable, which it barely is. The Miami-Dade Commission should let voters decide if a new courthouse is a more practical use of their money. There is a good case to be made.

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