Many people try to be good citizens: They stay informed, register to vote and cast their ballots on the days prescribed. They support the candidate who swears to uphold the highest interests of the community. Voters ultimately do give politicians a vote of confidence.
However, in Miami and Miami-Dade County, residents feel that, once again, they’ve been duped.
In August, Miami voters supported the construction of SkyRise Miami, a $430-million, 1,000-foot-high observation tower of questionable architectural taste slated to be built on public land near Bayside Marketplace, with the understanding that it would be completely financed by well-known developer Jeff Berkowitz. Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado supported the initiative promising that no public dollars would be spent on the project.
Here’s the problem: It is now estimated that SkyRise Miami will cost taxpayers $9 million to complete if county commissioners give final approval.
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Berkowitz’s activities made clear from the beginning that he was seeking state and county dollars to help finance his project, yet Mayor Regalado is feigning ignorance, which few believe. While Regalado promised repeatedly that SkyRise Miami would not require public dollars, Berkowitz kept silent. Perhaps he felt that actions speak louder than words. They do, indeed.
In the last legislative session, Berkowitz sought state funding for his tourist attraction, which lawmakers approved with the help of former Rep. Eddy Gonzalez who is now running for county property appraiser. It was later appropriately vetoed as a “turkey” by Gov. Rick Scott. Originally, Berkowitz sought $10 million but then reduced it to $2 million. Subsequently, in April of this year, Berkowitz requested $15 million of infrastructure funds from Miami-Dade County. He also notified Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso and Deputy City Manager Alicia Bravo of the request.
Mayor Regalado now says that his staff should have informed him of this correspondence, which is odd considering that he spent considerable effort in Spanish-language ads in support of this project that “would not cost taxpayers one cent.” One would think his efforts in promoting the project would have included many discussions with his staff. It would be unusual — and convenient — if this were not the case.
Berkowitz is a smart and successful businessman; he doesn’t need public dollars for his project, but he will take them if given to him. According to media reports, he is counting on 60 percent of the project to be sourced from private investors through a federal foreign visa for investment program called EB-5, which has been successful in New York City. Again, he is savvy and can get the funding.
Taxpayers shouldn’t be upset with Berkowitz; he doesn’t owe them a duty to keep his promises. Mayor Regalado does.
Mayor Regalado isn’t the only one letting his constituents down. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is also in favor of publicly financing this project. Most taxpayers disagree. These deals haven’t worked well in the past. After nearly two long decades, the Miami Heat shared profits with county as require by contract only once despite two championships. The Miami Marlins is different story; nothing can save that agreement except its expiration, and taxpayers are the losers.
Gimenez was right to vote against the Marlins stadium as commissioner but as mayor, he picks and chooses projects to support and reject, which is inconsistent with his role as steward of public assets. He hesitated to support public libraries, which were ultimately saved thanks to an extraordinary grassroots effort by the community. Florida International University, an important institution drawing national and international students as well as being a significant employer, can’t get county public dollars for necessary expansion plans. Add this to the fact that neither Gimenez nor Regalado has lifted a finger address the issue of the crumbling civil courthouse. The city of Miami issued a “Repair or Demolish” order on Aug. 7, which has been completely ignored. Yet, a private developer gets public funding for the construction of an expensive, less-productive eyesore?
Is it any wonder South Floridians feel discouraged? They’re both weary and wary of corporate welfare where the return on investment doesn’t warrant the risk to public assets. They aren’t getting the respect they — and their tax dollars — deserve, and they won’t until they really start paying attention and hold their elected officials accountable for their actions.