A nonprofit linked to a sea-rise advocacy group out of New York is planning a six-figure marketing effort behind Mayor Tomás Regalado’s Miami Forever general obligation bond.
With the city prohibited from funding its own political campaign, a 501(c)4 called the Seawall Coalition is planning to step into Miami and drop $200,000 between now and Nov. 7, when voters will decide whether to pay for $400 million in public works projects. Nearly half the money would pay for sweeping storm drain improvements, pumps and other efforts to brace the city against flooding and climate change, with the remainder going toward affordable housing, parks and public safety.
Matthew Eby, the group’s chairman and executive director of the First Street Foundation, said the decision to campaign for the bond came this summer as the foundation was pursuing its SeaLevelRise.org initiative to raise sea rise awareness in Florida and Virginia. At one point, they met with Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who mentioned the need for a bond campaign.
“We started the 501(c)4 as an advocacy group around sea-level rise solutions and within that we were looking around for what we should be getting involved in and heard about the bond,” said Eby. “We spoke with elected officials and that’s when we found out there weren’t any marketing dollars allocated to helping get the bond passed. That’s when we agreed to put $200,000 toward marketing.”
The campaign, which has not yet launched, comes amid some uncertainty about whether the bond proposal will pass.
When city commissioners agreed to put the initiative on the ballot, they did so by a 3 to 2 vote and on the condition that the city — which under state law can’t advocate for the bond but can educate voters on its details — not spend a dime on a campaign. At least one commissioner, Frank Carollo, promised to campaign against the proposal.
Much of the angst surrounds the fact that the city will pay for the $400 million in debt through a new property tax.
The bond program will legally have to be structured in a way that ensures tax bills won’t increase. The city will only take on new debt as old debt comes off the books, ensuring the portion of tax bills that goes toward paying down debt won’t go any higher. That pledge is included in the ballot language that will greet voters at the polls.
But without the new debt tied to the bond, tax bills would go down, and a real concern exists that Miami’s conservative voting base will be turned off by the proposal. Furthermore, the election is taking place during an off-year, when the only competitive races are located in heavily Hispanic communities such as Flagami and Little Havana, where voters tend to react harshly to taxation.
Albert Gomez, a member of Miami’s Sea Rise Committee, worried recently that the city hasn’t done enough to explain the details of the initiative.
“It’s very broad with not a lot of strings attached or a lot of guidance on how they’re going to spend the money,” he said. “Those nuances have not been addressed in the GO-bond. That’s why all these [community] institutions we can rely on normally to get these messages out haven’t really put it as a critical issue because they believe in the bond, they want to see the bond go in, but there’s no guarantee it’s going to support the most disaffected communities.”
In Miami’s fourth district, which includes Shenandoah, Coral Gate and Flagami, a recent poll of 400 likely voters showed that the bond would have failed in the district had the vote taken place in late August. Other sources familiar with citywide polling say the bond will likely live or die depending on whether voters see it as a tax increase.
Regalado said that’s where the Seawall Coalition comes in. He’s scheduled to meet with Eby’s group next week to tape a Spanish-language radio spot. He also believes the flooding caused by Hurricane Irma and the fallout that ensued at affordable housing sites around the city will be on voters’ minds when they head to the polls.
“With Irma, it was personal. It touched the lives of every single resident in the city of Miami,” he said. “We can't promise that the power won't go out, but we can promise that we will prepare for things.”
As a 501(c)4, the Seawall Coalition is not required to disclose its donors. Eby said he is among the individuals contributing to the campaign, but otherwise declined to name the nonprofit’s funding sources. He said the group is now forming a website and planning its strategy, which will include a heavy social media effort.
“With anything like this there will be challenges,” he said. “But I’m hopeful.”