Governing by crisis: This is how elected officials are leading, and it is evident at all levels of government, particularly local jurisdictions. It’s frustrating and wasteful. Miami-Dade County has its fair share of examples, the latest being the Miami-Dade County Courthouse.
The iconic 1925 neo-classical building on Flagler Street is popularly known as Cielito Lindo, which in Spanish means “beautiful sky.” This referred to the view that those incarcerated saw from a jail that was once situated atop the building. The view is one of the few things of beauty that remains in this once-majestic structure that is now, sadly, falling apart.
A visit to the civil courthouse reveals extensive damage caused by corroded columns, water leaks, asbestos, basement flooding, termites and some air-conditioning units that were installed when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.
On a good day, part of the building sports a funky scent of wet dog emanating from the black mold on the walls. Only seven of the 27 floors have bathrooms. Fans are used to dry public documents that get wet because of leaks. Currently, six floors can’t be used because of poor air quality.
Earlier this year, the county received an engineering report that indicated that the support beams have to be replaced. Should there be a hurricane warning, the building has to be evacuated because it is so damaged. How this building has a certificate of occupancy is beyond comprehension. It is a fire and health hazard.
No one disputes the building needs to be fixed, but there are financial and regulatory roadblocks. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning it can’t be razed. Most also agree that it does not meet the needs of the fourth-largest judicial circuit in the country.
But instead of leaders deciding the best course to follow, it falls on county voters to make the decision on Nov. 4 to temporarily fix the current building while another one is built at a location yet to be determined.
The legal community favors county-owned land next to the Children’s Courthouse. The ballot question asks voters not only to approve millions of dollars in new debt, it also asks for a leap of faith that, if approved, local leaders will treat the taxpayer dollar with respect. This is asking a lot.
Other funding options have been tossed around, including raising court-filing fees and fees on traffic tickets, but that would mean a speeding ticket for driving five miles above the speed limit, for example, could balloon to upwards of $200. That won’t work. Tickets that cost too much are likely left unpaid. As it is, Miami-Dade leads the nation in people driving with suspended licenses.
The current courthouse building could eventually be sold, defraying the costs of building a new one, which is what judges and attorneys say is necessary. Finding a buyer for a decaying building that can’t be razed might take a miracle; the Freedom Tower is an example, however, that miracles do happen.
No one is really satisfied with the proposals on the table to deal with the courthouse crisis, but ignoring the problem isn’t an option. The county has a constitutional obligation to pay for and provide access for its residents to county courts; there are no other vacant court buildings with room for juries.
Certainly, there’s plenty of blame to spread around between county and city leaders for the decades of neglect. This is an important discussion but not of much use in solving the problem of financing repairs or building a new courthouse. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to talk about it when tax dollars are being spent on plugging holes in a building that has been badly mismanaged.
Polls show that the public is wary that this is a good investment, but it’s better than the one currently being made. Voters need to know that they are currently spending hard-earned dollars to repair a building that’s hard to maintain and inadequate for the needs of residents.
So many people in Miami-Dade come from countries where justice is denied. Our courthouse should be a temple of justice, revered and respected. We deserve a good courthouse that reflects those values; we don’t have that now. Saying No is not the solution. The choice before us isn’t ideal, but this is what happens when we allow ourselves to be governed from crisis to crisis.