Miami-Dade County

Miami Commission sends $400 million general obligation bond to the voters

Affordable housing and climate change have been called the most existential problems facing Miami.

Voters will decide this November if they’re big enough to justify $400 million in new property taxes.

On Thursday, city commissioners narrowly agreed to place Mayor Tomás Regalado’s “Miami Forever” general obligation bond on the upcoming ballot. Following a heated debate, during which some elected officials mocked the proposal as “Taxing Miami Forever” and “Miami For Never,” commissioners voted 3-2 to give voters the decision on whether to spend the money.

“This is a victory for the next generation of Miami,” Regalado said following the vote.

The mayor, winding down 21 years in office, went into Thursday’s meeting seeking approval to hold a referendum to authorize $300 million in new spending, with two-thirds of it for flood prevention and sea-rise projects in a city with billions of dollars in coastal assets at risk. Instead, commissioners bumped that amount up to $400 million, largely to increase resources for housing and economic development.

“I’m tired personally of hearing Miami is truly the tale of two cities. That poor people will no longer be able to afford to live here,” said Chairman Keon Hardemon, who would vote for the referendum only after commissioners increased the money reserved for housing from $20 million to $100 million. “Every community is not going to be receptive to sea level rise and flood prevention. That is not their issue. They’ll look at you and say ‘What are you talking about?’ 

Thursday’s vote marked the end of a frantic month for Regalado’s administration, which released a $1.3 billion wish list of projects just three weeks ago and narrowed that amount down to an official proposal just last week. The list that made it to commissioners included $192 million for sea-rise and flooding, plus tens of millions more for parks, public safety, lighting and roadway improvements.

At one point Thursday, Regalado and former Mayor Joe Carollo, who is running for City Commission against Regalado’s son, Tommy Regalado, got into a heated argument in the lobby after Carollo blasted the city for acting like an “irresponsible” spender begging for more credit. Regalado promised to campaign against Carollo, who later told a reporter that “I’m not some chump he can threaten.”

The fate of the vote — which Regalado has talked about as part of his 21-year legacy — seemed tenuous at times Thursday. Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort ultimately cast the deciding vote, even while questioning if voters will be confused about why the city wants the money.

“People are going to vote on this and not understand it,” Gort said.

The next step for Regalado and the commissioners who supported the item will be to campaign for it, and convince taxpayers that they should fund the increased spending through their tax bills. Chief among their talking points: that new debt will only be taken on as old debt comes off the books, so property owners won’t actually see an increase in their tax rate but will continue to pay debt on the bonds for decades.

Regalado will also have the benefit of hitting the campaign trail with another tax rate reduction in his pocket, with commissioners having also voted Thursday to set a 2018 tax rate cap at $8.03 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value, down from $8.29 this year.

But tax hikes are always a tricky proposition in Miami. And the referendum will have its opponents.

The city’s unions — including police, who compared sea-rise warnings to the hysteria of Y2K Thursday — opposed the new debt, arguing that they’re still owed hundreds of millions in back wages and benefits after the city’s recession-era austerity measures were overturned this year. The city will also have a divided front, with Commissioner Frank Carollo promising to campaign against the referendum and Commissioner Francis Suarez declaring the bond proposal negotiated “on the back of a napkin.”

“I’m going to be very vocal on the campaign trail,” Carollo said.

Suarez, who is running for mayor, noted that a significant portion of the specific drainage projects listed on a preliminary funding list were based off an old stormwater plan that failed to take sea rise into account. The city’s finance committee also recommended against issuing the bonds.

“Seven days. Seven days. Seven days,” he said, repeating the amount of time commissioners had to digest the proposed list of funded projects and warning that the initiative will fail. “The risk of failure is just as great as the risk of success.”

But Regalado, a former radio personality who loves campaigning even more than he loves governing, was nonchalant after the hearing. The mayor said he expects wide support from voters, who see topics like flooding, affordable housing and street repair as “up close and personal.” Supporters will also stress the large liability associated with keeping the city functioning as seas rise, with new estimates predicting Miami will have to spend $900 million over the coming decades.

“This is their daily bread,” Regalado said. “It’s not a hard sell.”

The bond referendum was one of the few successes Regalado has enjoyed this summer amid an aggressive agenda as his time in office wanes.

Commissioners scheduled a November referendum for Monty’s Raw Bar and Marina in which the popular bayfront venue would receive an additional 32 years on its city lease in return for a promise to invest $7.5 million in improvements over the next three years and pay increased rent.

But an effort by the Regalado administration to get voters’ approval for a new deal with Hyatt for the James L. Knight Center property failed two weeks ago, and Jungle Island on Thursday backed out of a push to get a new hotel on the ballot. Meanwhile, a push to redevelop the city’s Rickenbacker marina remains tied up in a procurement dispute, and an ambitious plan to issue a long-term lease for the city’s riverfront headquarters to a developer and build a new office hub wasn’t ready in time to take it to commissioners Thursday.

With the commission heading out on an August recess, and a Sept. 8 deadline to schedule referendums, the November ballot could be set — unless, as many speculate, the city decides to hold a special meeting next month.

Miami Herald reporters Samantha J. Gross and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.