Miami-Dade County voters handed advocates for a new courthouse a do-over on Election Day.
They rejected a proposed $393 million bond issue to build a modern civil courthouse and repair the old one enough so that it can still be used until the new one comes on line. The enduring, 86-year-old courthouse, standing tall but seriously decrepit at 73 W. Flagler St., is not habitable, court administrators say — and they are right.
A report this year found that 132 of the building’s 144 structural columns are corroded. The foundation slab is seriously compromised. There are 41 judges vying to use 23 courtrooms. But despite images of peeling plaster, leaky ceilings, sopping wet case files, mold and toilets that don’t work, advocates didn’t make a persuasive case to residents who would be paying for a new structure.
Now that they have a do-over, they should do it the right way. That means taking the time to lay out the economics of what the money will buy in terms of a courthouse, or courthouses — the Richard Gerstein Criminal Justice Building in Miami’s Civic Center area is also in terrible shape, and taxpayers likely will be hit up at some point to renovate or replace that one, too.
Chief Judge Bertila Soto said Thursday that the push for a new courthouse and the search for new funding will continue. This time, the renewed campaign should look to the county’s school district and to public-hospital system for the right way to win voters over: Start early, don’t rush it and give the public plenty of solid details. Ensure voters that there will be an independent body to monitor how money is spent. Dispel comparisons to the First District Court of Appeal’s “Taj Mahal” of a courthouse in Tallahassee — those granite countertops really rankled taxpayers.
Most important, the push needs a leader to be the face, and the force, of the campaign. Someone large and in charge, credible. The school district’s successful $1.2 billion bond issue in 2012 had Superintendent Alberto Carvalho at the helm. Jackson Health System’s quest for $830 million had CEO Carlos Migoya.
As for leading the courthouse campaign, that honor must go to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. It’s a role, he told the Editorial Board, that he’s prepared to fill. He is the elected leader of the county, which ultimately is responsible for the courthouse. He can best make a cogent, comprehensible argument that it does not make economic sense to continue to spend millions to patch together a courthouse that, even fixed up, would still be inadequate.
As the mayor who replaced another who lost his seat because he misread residents’ tolerance for excessive spending, Mr. Gimenez can flaunt his commitment to fiscal responsibility to taxpayers still wary of another Marlins Stadium deal. He can say these problems existed before his tenure started, but he’s stepping up to find solutions.
It’s good to hear that he is open to partnering with private entities to get the job done. Done right, this would take at least some of the financial burden off of the public.
The mayor says that he’s willing to think more broadly, given that at least two court facilities need help. This is much better than other proposals that have been bandied about, including increasing the court costs for people convicted of crimes or raising fees on speeding tickets. Both represent a regressive approach that will ding too many people who can’t afford to pay more and remove the sense of shared responsibility for these institutions that serve the public.