Advocates for a new civil courthouse to replace the historic, 28-floor skyscraper at 73 W. Flagler St. in downtown Miami have made a slam-dunk case for finding a new place to conduct the people’s business. Sadly, the majestic grande dame is showing its age, is practically uninhabitable and needs to be replaced.
But wait. Though the case for moving out of the old building is convincing, the case for approving a hastily hatched $393-million bond referendum to pay for a new venue has not been made. Voters are being asked to hand money over to the county without being told exactly how that money will be spent. In the absence of any plan, questions and doubts have flourished.
The bond language refers to “construction of new court facilities.” Does this mean money can be spent for more than one building? Where will the new building be located? How much will it cost? Will this money be well spent? What are the alternatives? Could there be more satellite courthouses, for instance, or perhaps a hearing process that uses cyberspace to save the public time and expense?
This level of spending for the courts doesn’t come along very often; this is the moment to consider all options.
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Then this: A 2007-08 courts master plan called the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building — the criminal courthouse in Miami’s Civic Center area — the most overcrowded and inadequate. Now, suddenly, the public is told, never mind. That’s no longer the priority. But that doesn’t mean Gerstein won’t need to be replaced or significantly upgraded soon. Where would that money come from?
All of these questions must be answered before the public can have confidence that its money will be well spent. At the moment, there is no such plan, and thus no reason for confidence. Even County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who apparently accepts the argument that the existing building is beyond repair, has said the referendum is heading for failure.
But while judges have been earnestly making the case for relief, the county has been missing in action. Shouldn’t the county be out there making the case, too — and with a comprehensive plan? It’s the landlord, after all.
Since 2012, Miami-Dade taxpayers have approved $1.2 billion in new government debt for public schools and $830 million for the Jackson Health System. The courts, we believe, are every bit as important as schools and hospitals. The court system is a vital component of democracy. The ideals of justice are best served in a surrounding that matches the aspirations of those ideals.
But those votes — we recommended approval of both — were preceded by a longer and more thorough debate, and the public’s choices were informed by a spending plan. Both proposals had the full support of the board members of the school district and the public hospital, whereas the proposed courthouse vote has aroused dissent from some commissioners, and even those in favor haven’t waged a conspicuous campaign for it. Nor has the mayor.
It’s not fair to ask judges and all others who use the court building to spend time in a place that’s unsafe, unsanitary and inefficient. But neither is it fair to expect the public to fork over money without the details, especially when county leaders haven’t been willing to get out in front of this issue.
The county is responsible, by law, for finding proper facilities for the courts. County leaders have a duty to develop a proper spending plan and sell it to the public. So far, they’ve failed. The Herald recommends NO to the Miami-Dade Courthouse general-obligation bond issue.