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Miami commissioners approve $45 million bond issue for PortMiami tunnel dig loan

It took more than two years, but the Miami City Commission on Thursday finally approved a solution to its $45 million problem.

Commissioners voted unanimously to issue $45 million in bonds.

The bonds will enable Miami to pay off a two-year bank loan that financed its share of the PortMiami tunnel dig. Commissioners were pressed to make a decision: The loan, which is held by Wells Fargo, must be paid in full in January and a bond issue can take months to prepare.

“It needed to happen today,” City Manager Johnny Martinez said of the vote.

Initially, the commission had hesitated to issue bonds, fearing it might hurt the city’s credit rating or put Miami at risk of litigation or sanctions from the federal government.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recently concluded that Miami misled investors about the city’s financial health before 2007 and 2009 bond issues, and is threatening civil penalties. A separate probe into the city bonds used to pay for the Marlins Ballpark garages is ongoing.

“There is a risk involved,” Commission Vice Chairman Marc Sarnoff said of the bond issue, which will target “institutional’’ buyers that manage at least $100 million in securities. “But I think it’s a manageable risk.”

The debt technically belongs to the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, a special district that uses a portion of property tax revenue to fund redevelopment in the blighted neighborhood. Though the city will issue the bonds, the CRA has pledged to make the debt service payments, which will total $71 million with interest.

Martinez said he plans to close on the bond issue by Dec. 13.

In other business, the commission approved an agreement that lays the groundwork for LED billboards at the Miami Children’s Museum. The museum is one of three city-owned properties where illuminated billboards are allowed.

Thursday’s deal requires the museum to share 20 percent of all billboard revenues with the city. Combined with annual permitting fees, the deal likely will mean about $500,000 annually for city coffers, public facilities director Henry Torre said.

Miami Children’s Museum Chairman Jeffrey Berkowitz called the proposal “generous.”

Countered Commissioner Frank Carollo: “I wouldn’t say generous. I would say reasonable.”

The city has yet to approve any actual permits for billboards on the site. Still, anti-billboard activists came to City Hall to protest the revenue-sharing agreement.

“This only adds to the proliferation of LED signs throughout our community,” said Barbara Bisno, of Scenic Miami, a group that opposes visual pollution.

Also on Thursday, commissioners agreed to give St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School exclusive use of the upper portion of Peacock Park when school is in session. St. Stephen’s has agreed to spend $500,000 on park renovations that would include new Astroturf soccer fields, improvements to the existing basketball court and new landscaping.