Miami-Dade County

Poor tenants and a Trump hotel owe county money. Guess which names made the report.

The Loews Miami Beach is one of 24 commercial properties cited in a billing mishap from nearly 20 years ago that resulted in about $3.5 million in unpaid county water-and-sewer hook-up fees. Miami-Dade on Tuesday removed the debt from its accounting books, declaring it officially beyond hope of being collected. The county and Miami Beach waited too long to pursue the money, allowing the legal cap on past debts to expire before trying to collect.
The Loews Miami Beach is one of 24 commercial properties cited in a billing mishap from nearly 20 years ago that resulted in about $3.5 million in unpaid county water-and-sewer hook-up fees. Miami-Dade on Tuesday removed the debt from its accounting books, declaring it officially beyond hope of being collected. The county and Miami Beach waited too long to pursue the money, allowing the legal cap on past debts to expire before trying to collect. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

A former public-housing tenant who owes about $10,000 in unpaid rent to Miami-Dade is named in the county’s most recent list of debtors. The Loews Hotel, a South Beach resort with nearly $1 million in unpaid county sewer fees, is not.

The foreclosure tied to a $22,000 affordable-housing loan placed one woman on the list, but the hotel once known as the Trump International Sonesta did not land a mention for the nearly $470,000 that the county says it owes for a water connection from years ago.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade commissioners agreed to write off nearly $20 million in “bad” debt — obligations from years past that county auditors see as so far beyond hope of ever collecting that it would be misleading to continue recording the potential revenue on government ledgers. And while the county singled out by name the former airport vendors, cafeteria operators, and public-housing tenants owing money, its public report for the meeting left off the identities of the high-profile hotels and condo towers that are significant sources of the worthless debt.

“It’s pretty ironic,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who complained of special treatment for the hotels and condo towers that avoided paying millions of dollars in sewage connection fees because of billing screwups at the city and county levels. “I think that the public needs to see the list of delinquent [water-and-sewer] accounts…These are large bills to major corporations, which we have written off.”

The roster of hotels and condo towers owing Miami-Dade about $3.5 million is anything but a secret: the disclosure of the list in 2014 made news and sparked outrage from commissioners and others over the failure to bill the Loews, Trump Sonesta, the Portofino Tower and 21 other prominent buildings on or near the beach. The unpaid bills stemmed from water and sewer connections completed as far back as the 1990s, and county administrators said the statute of limitations on collecting had long passed by the time the mistakes were caught.

And while the list with the most recognizable names — including a Sunny Isles Beach resort with a licensing deal with President Donald Trump’s hotel company — was not included on the commission agenda released last week, it was posted Tuesday on the website of the mayor’s office dedicated to memos and reports. Commissioners were emailed the memo Tuesday morning at the start of the meeting.

“The information was provided directly to commissioners and is available for all residents and journalists to review, as are all public documents,” said Michael Hernández, spokesman for Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Miami-Dade blamed Miami Beach for the bulk of the billing problems, saying city bureaucrats failed to collect the fees required for hooking up to the county-run water system for a string of buildings opened between 1989 and 2005. But Miami-Dade also failed to catch the missed billings through its own system, and the water department’s chief financial officer said Tuesday that the county had implemented safeguards to spot failures to bill in the future.

“If they drop the ball, this could still happen. And we could have to go after someone,” CFO Frances Morris told commissioners. “But because we have these measures in place, we won’t pass the statute of limitations.”

When the write-off memo went before a committee hearing in October, Commissioner Joe Martinez asked why the water-and-sewer debt had no details while dozens of housing residents and bankrupt former county vendors were listed by name. The Gimenez memo with the list released before the meeting was in response to Martinez’s request for more information.

On Tuesday, Martinez complained about Miami-Dade essentially surrendering on collecting such large amounts from prominent businesses.

“We go after the little guy,” Martinez said. “Then you’ve got companies like these, to the tune of $900,000 or $600,000, and they get a break. … We let a lot slide.”

Representatives of the Loews and Trump Miami did not respond to requests for comment. In the past, businesses affected said they paid what was asked of them through the appropriate billing process. The Loews opened in 2008 with the help of a $60 million construction subsidy from the city and county. The Trump Miami retained a licensing deal with the Trump organization first struck while it was Sonesta, which involves the independently managed hotel paying for use of the Trump brand. The Loews’ debt to the county dates from 1997, and from 2002 for the Trump hotel, when it was under different ownership and part of the Sonesta chain.

Miami-Dade says the law gives authorities only four years to try and collect for water fees that weren’t billed on time, leaving the county no choice but to declare the debt unenforceable.

Even as it writes off the debt for accounting purposes, Miami-Dade said it still considers the obligations alive. Ex-tenants who owe the housing system money, for example, aren’t allowed to rent again unless the past obligations are satisfied, said housing chief Michael Liu.

“We need to send a message to folks to follow the rules,” he said.

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