Six weeks from a possible countywide vote on a subsidized renovation of Sun Life Stadium, the Miami Dolphins still lack a crucial element for their pitch to the public: a deal.
The team’s plan to use local hotel taxes and state subsidies to fund part of a $390 million upgrade of the 1987 facility continued to move closer to state approval Wednesday, with a key Florida House committee endorsing a bill needed for the public dollars. And sources said county commission staffers were mulling a special meeting for early next week to schedule the referendum, which is expected May 14.
But with time running short to comply with public notice regulations for the vote, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has yet to announce a deal with the Dolphins — much less reveal the financial details that will determine the ultimate cost to the public.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Gimenez said this week. “It’s hard, but it’s doable.”
In recent weeks, Dolphins executives announced that Miami-Dade would not be asked to borrow any of the money needed for the upgrade, but instead would use a stream of new hotel taxes to help pay off the debt from the project over the next three decades. The Dolphins also said they would pay back Miami-Dade $120 million at the end of the 30 years, representing the county’s share of the $390 million construction tab.
One of the biggest questions remaining is how much of the new hotel tax the Dolphins want annually. County forecasts show raising mainland hotel taxes to 7 percent from 6 percent, as called for in the Dolphins’ bill, would generate about $690 million over 30 years. The Dolphins and Gimenez have been negotiating over how much of the tax should go to the team, with Miami-Dade’s largest hotel group advocating a portion go to tourism promotion.
A Dolphins spokesman said Wednesday it’s too early to say how much of the hotel tax the team would require for debt payments. “Any attempts by The Miami Herald to guess this number are premature,” Eric Jotkoff said. “The math is based on a series of assumptions that are just wrong, so the numbers are wrong.”
Sun Life already qualifies for $2 million a year from Florida’s pool of subsidies for new stadiums. The money is tied to the facility’s being retro-fit for baseball in 1994. That revenue stream expires in 2024.
A Dolphins-backed bill that passed its sixth legislative committee Wednesday would create a new subsidy for stadium renovations, which could give Sun Life an additional $3 million annually for 30 years. The new state subsidy would generate $90 million by 2044, and the Dolphins have pledged to pay back Florida $47 million at the end of the 30-year term.
Combined, all three revenue streams would generate $800 million over 30 years, based on Miami-Dade’s projection of hotel taxes growing 5 percent a year. The Dolphins have agreed to refund $120 million. That would leave a mathematical cap on the public’s cost at $680 million through 2044, with the big variable being how much of the hotel tax the Dolphins and Gimenez agree on sending to the stadium project. The actual total of the tax dollars being pursued by the Dolphins won’t be known until Gimenez and the team announce the specifics of a deal.
Details could be revealed at any moment, with people close to the Dolphins saying a deal with Gimenez is close. On Wednesday, the team’s top lobbyist, Ron Book, told lawmakers an agreement with the county would be announced “in the coming days.” Gimenez has made no such prediction.
To hold a referendum on May 14 — a week before NFL owners award the 50th and 51st Super Bowls — the county would need to legally notice the special election 30 days earlier. Commissioners would first have to hold a special meeting to sign off on the election. Setting that meeting would require support from 7 of 13 commissioners — which the Dolphins are expected to have, easily — and at least 24 hours’ notice.
Two sources in County Hall and one close to the talks between Gimenez and the Dolphins said the commission is preparing the steps for a special meeting Tuesday.
All too aware that stadium politics cost his predecessor his job, Gimenez has been treading carefully, extracting concessions from the Dolphins while trying to gauge the popularity of the team’s proposal. Gimenez, who loudly opposed the public financing for the Miami Marlins’ ballpark, landed the mayor’s job after the recall of Carlos Alvarez, who was ousted in part because of the unpopular Marlins deal.
Gimenez has warned all along that no agreement might result from his talks with the Dolphins, if he doesn’t think the terms would benefit the county. He could also bring a proposal to county commissioners but not give it a full-throated endorsement — or any support at all.
The Dolphins had hoped to be campaigning for a detailed proposal by now, with polls showing opposition to spending taxes on the stadium. The team’s campaign website, MiamiFirst.com, recently posted a recruiting announcement for interns. The Miami First Fellowship seeks students to help in get-out-the-vote efforts.
The proposal has divided Miami-Dade lawmakers, with local representatives emerging as the main critics of legislation that would benefit one of their home county’s most high-profile private companies.
Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, led the opposition of the bill before the House Economic Affairs Committee, before the measure passed 10-7.
“When we decide we can’t expand Medicaid, when we can’t expand services to victims of domestic violence, when we can’t expand services to the [physically] disabled,” he said, “I hope you take comfort in the fact that you sent $385 million of your taxpayers’ dollars to a for-profit, billion-dollar corporation.”
But Commissioner Sally Heyman, who was in Tallahassee, asked lawmakers not to stand in the way of a local project Miami-Dade is largely willing to undertake as an economic-development initiative.
“We consistently team up with private enterprise,” she said, “if we can see public good.”