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Spend Dolphins cash on elections or refund it to team, Miami Herald readers say

Sorry, Miami-Dade commissioners. Our readers don’t seem to like your plans for how to spend the elections cash left over from the Miami Dolphins.

In fact, quite a few of them — Dolfans, perhaps? — would prefer you give the money back to the football team.

Never mind that the Dolphins’ nearly $4.8 million payment to cover a planned May 14 referendum on public funding to renovate Sun Life Stadium was nonrefundable. The referendum was canceled, only about $2.5 million of the money has been spent — some invoices are still pending — and a surprising number of readers who answered The Miami Herald’s call for ideas on what elected officials should do with the windfall insisted it should be returned.

“Commissioners should give the money back to the Dolphins and let them give it to any organization they want,” wrote Raul Carbonell, one of more than 80 readers who weighed in via email and through the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with The Herald. “The county just robbed the Dolphins of their own money.”

Readers advocating the return of the cash were outnumbered only by those who agreed with Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who wants to buy new elections equipment recommended by a group that reviewed problems at last year’s polling places. Commissioners are scheduled to decide where the money should go at a meeting Tuesday.

“We need to improve the election system, and where would that money come from later on, the Taxpayers?” Peggy Hill wrote. “Keep the money with the election process.”

The Dolphins paid $4,784,337 for the election up front, knowing that there was a chance Florida lawmakers would not approve legislation required for Miami-Dade to ask voters if the hotel-tax rate should be raised to fund part of a $350 million upgrade to the Miami Gardens stadium. The annual legislative session adjourned without the House of Representatives taking action. As of Monday, more than $2.3 million remained unspent, according to the elections department.

Now commissioners must decide the money’s fate.

Only a couple of readers sided with Commissioner Barbara Jordan’s proposal to start a low-interest loan program for small businesses, or with Commissioner Juan C. Zapata’s idea to split the dollars among the 13 board members to distribute as “mom-and-pop” business grants or for youth summer programs.

Maria Utrera of Homestead wrote that she would support loans to help develop new — not existing — small businesses, “with a paper trail.”

“No freebies to commissioners’ friends, or family,” she noted. “This would help create jobs, bring in more tax dollars and help the community as a whole.”

A far larger number of readers questioned commissioners’ intentions and forcefully opined against dividing the cash among them.

“The last thing to do is split it up between the county commissioners for their pork reelection projects,” wrote Arthur Carson of Miami, who called for refunding the Dolphins the money.

“I agree with Mayor Gimenez, the funds should go towards the upgrade of the County’s election equipment,” wrote Celia C. Suarez. “All other suggestions sound like ‘slush type funds for commissioners’ where accountability is nil and political favors are paid back.”

Readers had plenty to say about where else the money could go.

Maria Luisa Castellanos of Miami wrote that the county should hire “the best litigator in town.” That person’s assignment: to get Miami-Dade out of the steep debt payments that will come due on the largely publicly financed Miami Marlins ballpark.

“We could use the money as enticement to get the litigator on board and maybe he would take it on contingency,” Castellanos wrote. “After all, if he won, he would be famous and the people of Miami would be very grateful.”

But the ideas didn’t stop there. Taken as a whole, the suggestions — a small, unscientific sampling — amounted to a laundry list of areas where county residents see unmet needs.

Seniors meal programs trimmed by federal budget cuts. Worn-down roads in the county’s western suburbs. A lack of trees.

Several readers suggested putting the cash toward fixing leaky water and sewer pipes or old bridges. Others wanted expanded public transit. A few said the money should be distributed among taxpayers, or given as a bonus to county employees. A couple even said the money should go to public schoolteachers, though they work for a separate government entity.

A half-dozen readers — apparently campaigning for their request — asked for the creation of an all-terrain vehicle park.

“I own 4 atvs and I have no where to take my family and enjoy them,” lamented Gustavo Montoya of Miami.

Even if the money is not refunded to the Dolphins, some readers said, the county should spruce up the area around Sun Life with new street lighting, for example, or fund youth football programs or donate the money to a Dolphins charity.

So what do the Dolphins think?

The team declined to comment Monday.

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