Miami-Dade County

Amid lawsuits, Downtown Miami agency seeks help from lawmakers

Javier Betancourt, deputy director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority
Javier Betancourt, deputy director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority

For decades, the Miami Downtown Development Authority has taxed property owners to fund its mission as a business booster and planner for the city’s central business hub.

But after collecting millions over the last 50 years, the semi-autonomous city agency now wants Florida lawmakers to pass legislation stating that it has the authority to collect property taxes — just in case there were any questions that it doesn’t.

The pro-tax legislation, sponsored by Republican Miami-Dade lawmakers, comes amid a protracted legal battle over whether the DDA lacks legal standing as a taxing authority. Supporters of the DDA, which expects to reap $6.4 million in property taxes this year, say the narrowly tailored bills merely seek to clarify the agency’s authority and to ward off “frivolous” lawsuits.

“Let me make it real clear. All this language does is clarify existing law,” Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said last week during a committee discussion on his proposal (SB 278).

But critics say Diaz de la Portilla and Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., who is sponsoring a companion bill in the House, are providing a backdoor defense for the DDA while the agency awaits a ruling from the Third District Court of Appeal on a series of legal challenges. Linda Carroll, an attorney representing a Brickell property owner in multiple lawsuits against the DDA, said that if anything, the sponsored bills prove her client’s case.

“They don’t have authority. And this is their attempt to try and pick up the pieces,” she said.

Carroll has represented Milan Investment Group since 2008, when the company filed a class-action suit against the DDA. The corporation, which last year paid just $73 in property taxes to the DDA from its Brickell condo unit, has challenged every tax bill it has received from the DDA during the last seven years, and argued for a refund.

The crux of the argument — that the DDA has no constitutional or legal authority to reap property taxes — comes down largely to how the agency was created.

The Miami DDA was founded in 1967, two years after the state authorized special downtown development taxing districts to alleviate blight and revitalize central business districts. Today, 14 downtown development districts exist, but Miami’s is the only one created under the 1965 law.

That’s largely because in 1968, the Florida Legislature granted cities and counties the authority to pass laws without state blessing, and then repealed local application laws rendered obsolete, like the one authorizing the Miami DDA. Without a state law on the books to back the DDA, or a county vote or referendum by property owners in the taxing district, Carroll argues that the agency is levying an illegal tax.

Democratic Sen. Gwen Margolis, whose district includes much of downtown, has unsuccessfully tried to stop and then tweak the Senate bill. She says the law is tailored so that it only applies to Miami, and is an improper intrusion by the Legislature into the courts.

“They’re trying to solve a lawsuit legislatively, which is inconceivable,” said Margolis, who in a recent committee meeting referred to the DDA as “somebody’s little teapot.” Diaz de la Portilla, who didn’t respond to messages left at his Miami and Tallahassee offices, countered that Margolis must be fighting the DDA for “personal reasons.”

Javier Betancourt, deputy director of the Miami DDA, said that the DDA simply wants to reiterate its taxing authority. Betancourt has been clear in Tallahassee that the legislation is in response to lawsuits against the DDA.

“It’s very clear to us that the authority is there [in state law] and the Legislature’s intent has always been to provide that authority,” said Betancourt. “But just in case there was any doubt and to frankly bring some finality to this issue and discourage frivolous lawsuits in the future, we wanted to make crystal clear the authority is there.”