Miami-Dade County

Stalled for a decade, a $75 million fund for business help gets drained

For 10 years, Miami-Dade County sat on a $75 million pool of economic-development dollars, leaving the funds untapped through boom, bust and recovery. That began to change last summer, when elected leaders launched a series of 10 earmarks that concluded Tuesday when county commissioners approved handing two developments the remaining $15 million from the program.

“I believe these projects are going to be very beneficial to the region,” said County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, whose Miami district includes River Landing, which won a $7.5 million allocation on Tuesday. The mixed-use project along the Miami River also is receiving free county land in exchange for creating a public river-walk there.

The River Landing grant, and another one for the Rosal Westview commercial park planned at the former Westview Country Club north of Miami, are set to close out an economic fund created as part of a $2.9 billion bond referendum in 2004. Funded by property taxes, the grants reimburse developers for money spent on infrastructure for a site, such as utility hook-ups, parking and roadway improvements.

Now part of the program is caught up in election-season litigation, as likely mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado is suing over a $9 million grant to the SkyRise Miami observation tower planned for downtown Miami. City voters approved the project before its pursuit of county dollars became public, and Regalado claims the grant allocation violates the referendum’s description of a “privately funded” project. Developer Jeff Berkowitz notes that a request he made for state money was already well known before the August referendum, and that he notified Miami officials in writing of his application for county help.

Aside from the SkyRise dust-up, critics questioned the rush to assign the economic-development money after such a long wait. Miami-Dade didn’t send out a formal request for applications, and some of the businesses that won the money also boasted political cachet. Berkowitz was a top campaign donor to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and several commissioners, and $5 million went to a nonprofit presided over by former congresswoman Carrie Meek. Landmark, the developer behind Rosal, was the top campaign contributor to Commission Chairman Jean Monestime last year.

“I felt there wasn’t a process that was fair and followed by everyone,” Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said Tuesday before voting against awarding grant money to the two developments.

Miami-Dade would borrow the $75 million over the next five years, then pay the money back over several decades with a special property tax reserved for county debt authorized by voters. Needed to fund a countywide borrowing program approaching $3 billion, the debt tax this year amounts to $45 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value.

Using the administration’s latest debt-to-tax calculations, the entire $75 million from the economic-development program would account for about one dollar of tax per $100,000 of a property’s value if all of the money were borrowed today. Miami-Dade’s budget calls for distributing the money in stages through 2020, so the actual costs would depend on market conditions.

Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández noted the administration still has to negotiate formal agreements with each grant recipient, and that the money won’t be paid until a project is completed and the promised jobs certified.

“The Gimenez administration will ensure that [grant] participants deliver what they commit to in their contracts,” he said in a statement. “Miami-Dade County will benefit from the leveraging of hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment for economic development, and the thousands of new jobs created for our residents.”

Should conditions not be met, or projects stall, Miami-Dade could pull back the money and allocate it elsewhere. In January, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava proposed freezing the fund, but commissioners declined. They agreed to direct the Gimenez administration to conclude negotiations with grant recipients by late July.

Miami-Dade can’t borrow against property-tax dollars without voter approval, and the endorsement for the economic grants came indirectly more than a decade ago.

In 2004, commissioners included the $75 million program in the $2.9 billion Building Better Communities bond initiative. The program was part of a 43-page appendix created before the November vote, which laid out 303 projects in the bond program. The $75 million economic-development fund, Project 124, was approved by voters through a ballot question that committed tax dollars “to construct and improve walkways, bikeways, bridges and access to the Seaport, and other municipal and neighborhood infrastructure improvements to enhance quality of life.”

On Tuesday, the final grants were both approved on 7-to-4 votes. Voting against the River Landing money were Commissioners Levine Cava, Sally Heyman, Sosa and Juan C. Zapata. Levine Cava switched to a yes for the Rosal project, but Commissioner Audrey Edmonson joined the remaining members of the “no” bloc to keep the vote count the same. Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Barbara Jordan did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

In other business Tuesday, the commission:

▪ Approved an increase in taxi rates for passengers paying with credit cards. The new fares add $2.70 for a five-mile trip (to $16.80 from the current $14.10) but also provide a $2.70 discount for passengers paying cash. The higher rates come as Uber and Lyft, driver-for-hire programs that do all booking and payments through cellphone apps, are offering lower fares than the county’s regulated taxis. Raymond Francois, a Miami taxi driver, said the higher fares will give passengers another incentive to use the rogue services, which are fighting for legalization in Miami-Dade.

“Right now taxis can’t compete with Uber and Lyft because of the rates,” he said. “And you’re going to increase them more?”

▪ Gave symbolic backing to pursuing a professional soccer stadium next to Marlins Park. The item originally called for directing Mayor Gimenez to try to broker a deal with David Beckham to build a stadium there, but without any county dollars to offer. Some commissioners asked why Miami-Dade should narrow the location options. “I don’t want to hurt the possibility of professional soccer coming,” Sosa said. Endorsing the Marlins site at the exclusion of others “might create more problems.”

Beckham partner Simon Fuller in May dismissed the Marlins site as “spiritually tainted” at a time when a waterfront stadium in downtown Miami seemed a possibility. Now Marlins Park (referred to in the resolution as the former Orange Bowl location) is getting more attention from leaders trying to revive prospects for a soccer deal.

“They looked at other sites. Those doors slammed on their faces,” said Barreiro, whose district includes Marlins Park. “I believe this is the location where, at the end of the day, where they are going to end up.”

Barreiro agreed to a watered-down resolution that asked Gimenez to pursue a stadium at all possible sites in Miami-Dade, including the former Orange Bowl location. Heyman asked why the commission should bother picking sites when Beckham’s team hasn’t weighed in with options. “What a bunch of wasted resources,” she said.

▪ Approved the first funding component for Gimenez’s plan to build a new Liberty Square housing complex. Commissioners authorized spending $32 million on Liberty Square, tapping funds from stalled affordable-housing projects elsewhere. In all, Liberty Square is expected to cost about $200 million. Gimenez plans to have private developments put up more than half of the money up front, in exchange for a stream of payments in future years.

▪ Delayed considering a return to charging fares for the county’s Metromover rail system in Miami. The issue is set to return for the commission’s March 17 meeting.