Helen Aguirre Ferré: Miami-Dade Mayor Gimenez needs to recalibrate his leadership

05/10/2014 7:00 PM

05/09/2014 5:57 PM

On the surface, Miami-Dade County looks great. The booming real-estate market, buoyed by international investors, is literally taking the greater Brickell area to exciting new heights. The west side of downtown Miami will soon see a commuter railroad that will include an extension of Tri-Rail. The arts are thriving, museums are opening, there’s new energy emanating from Miami’s urban core.

With all the construction and investment going on in Miami, why is Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in trouble?

Money. Miami-Dade is losing lots of money. Despite the fact that the county brought in nearly 7 percent more in revenue this year than in the prior year, there is a budget shortfall of approximately $208 million.

Miami-Dade carries more than $17 billion in debt and the number is rising.

A lot of taxpayers are disappointed and letting Mayor Gimenez feel the pain. Library proponents worry that they will lose their battle to keep the system afloat; the Pets’ Trust folks are fuming and feeling slighted; environmentalists are angry that climate change is not being enforced in water and sewer infrastructure improvements; countywide traffic congestion is hurting the economy; and Gimenez is negotiating three sport stadiums with wealthy team owners who some feel have not paid their fair share to taxpayers.

The current focus on finding a new soccer stadium for the splendid David Beckham when the Marlins still owe for the construction cost of their 3-year-old stadium is getting old.

Even Gimenez should agree that certain things do not look good for the strong mayor who is also the county manager. It is not that he didn’t see the problems coming; it’s that he made some critical mistakes early on that tarnished his image: He proposed property-tax increases before trimming government excess and called for closing libraries while negotiating a deal for the Dolphins that smacked of corporate welfare.

Now there is worrisome news coming from PortMiami. The rosy projections of the seaport’s finances did not pan out, and it appears to be losing a lot of money. Mounting debt and overspending at the seaport have led the credit-rating firm Moody’s to downgrade the port’s credit rating for the second time in a year. Moving from “low risk” to “moderate,” PortMiami’s debt was $1 billion.

County officials need nearly $180 million to pay for the remaining share of the cost for the new tunnel. To deal with the situation, the County Commission approved the sale of $209.1 million in bonds. Of course, the lowered credit rating means the cost of borrowing money to support PortMiami will be higher. The interest alone to repay these bonds over the next 35 years is $16,319,100, with more debt to come.

This is an ironic outcome for a seaport that has been at the center of a large capital-improvements campaign including a much ballyhooed tunnel that may end up being too costly to operate. The problem isn’t just bad accounting, but that it was kept under wraps without communicating directly to commissioners and voters about the vast nature of the deficits and the proposals to reverse them.

To his credit, Mayor Gimenez is addressing some the problems in areas of critical need, establishing task forces to transform the transportation infrastructure and to deal with the critical problems associated and perceived in the county’s notorious procurement process. Both are important, but they don’t even begin to address the critical deficit areas threatening the county.

The task forces are only good if their work is taken seriously. Otherwise, as is often the case, they are just window dressing giving the appearance that something is being done when the opposite is true. That would be truly disappointing and politically damaging for the mayor.

For years, Gimenez’s role on the County Commission was that of the maverick, the discrepant voice that called out the mayor, the county manager, even fellow commissioners for not taking charge and doing the right thing. That job was easier than the one he has now. Today as mayor of Miami-Dade County, he has to pivot, reach out to commissioners and residents and lead. If he can do it with David Beckham, he can do it with the rest of us.

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