Miami-Dade County

How to replace a courthouse so old it held Al Capone’s trial?

The historic civil courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. is subject to a debate on how to replace it (or if it even needs replacing).
The historic civil courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. is subject to a debate on how to replace it (or if it even needs replacing). Miami Herald Staff

Homeowners should help finance a new Miami-Dade courthouse, but speeders should be spared.

Those are some of the recommendations in the county’s latest effort to craft a funding plan for a $360 million replacement of Miami-Dade’s current civil courthouse, a building so old it once held the trial of Al Capone. The easiest way to build a new facility would be to raise property taxes to pay for it, but voters soundly rejected that option in 2014.

Winning the political support needed to secure new dollars remains a steep challenge for the judges and lawyers complaining Miami-Dade’s current courthouse is too cramped and dilapidated to continue as the hub of the county’s civil justice system. In forwarding the task force’s report to Miami-Dade commissioners, Mayor Carlos Gimenez included a discouraging summary of the situation.

“While it is known that this community needs a new civil courthouse,” Gimenez wrote, “there are no concrete funding sources at this time and the County continues to address many competing priorities.”

More than two years after the failed bond referendum, Miami-Dade leaders are faced with the touchy financial task of pulling funds away from other county needs or conjuring new funding sources to replace the 1928 building at 73 W. Flagler St. A task force assembled to make recommendations in early 2015 presented its findings a year later that urged a replacement and laid out funding options similar to what’s in the latest report.

County commissioners declined to embrace the document, forming a second task force with roughly the same members to try again.

While it is known that this community needs a new civil courthouse there are no concrete funding sources at this time and the County continues to address many competing priorities.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

That task force’s new report outlines a similar plan with familiar options. Members, who include engineers, architects and lawyers, recommended asking voters for the bond money again, but only to cover funding gaps when other revenue falls short. One option involves selling or leasing the current building, along with other real estate Miami-Dade owns in downtown Miami. The task force estimates the deals could generate about a third of the money needed for a new building with 50 modern courtrooms.

One option the panel recommended against: hiking fines for traffic violations to pay for a new courthouse. Reflecting concern that higher fees would bring economic hardship to low-income drivers, the report said raising traffic penalties “puts an unfair burden on many individuals.”

In a statement, Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto, a top champion of the new-courthouse effort, endorsed the new recommendations. “We are very satisfied with the second report,” she said. “It reaffirms everything we have been saying for the last three years.”

Developers are pressing to finance a courthouse replacement through a funding mechanism known as “public-private partnerships” or P3 partnerships. Those often involve a for-profit firm building and operating a government facility in exchange for decades of tax-funded payments from the government.

The report declined to endorse that option, saying it recommended a “conventional” method of Miami-Dade hiring a builder and then operating the facility itself. The task force said it would “also accept a P3 delivery method” tailored to Miami-Dade’s needs.

One hurdle for the courthouse push comes from the facility itself: Critics of the 2014 referendum objected to higher taxes for a building used most frequently by high-paid lawyers and judges. Miami-Dade’s judges argued the aging building — where entire floors were closed over mold outbreaks and other issues — was so dated that it hampered the county’s ability to dispense justice to its citizens.

Characterizing the existing building added to the complications, with the Gimenez administration describing its woes as temporary and largely fixed by upgrading the air conditioning and repairing leaks.

Gary Winston, a county prosecutor, wanted the report to include the need for a “healthy” replacement to “an unhealthy building,” according to minutes of the task force’s Aug. 31 meeting. An official with the county’s building-management arm, Internal Services, stated “that building has never been thought to be an unhealthy building.”

Another source of friction involved the need for a new courthouse at all. While a replacement enjoys broad support from the county’s elected leaders, one task-force member, architect Maria Luisa Castellanos, sees the effort mainly to give the county’s roughly 45 civil judges more trial options than the current 26-room building provides.

“The problem is we don’t need 50 courtrooms,” she said. “They can share courtrooms.”

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