Miami-Dade County

Downtown Miami agency wins support in Tallahassee

The Florida House on Tuesday passed a bill stating that Miami’s Downtown Development Authority can levy property taxes — and lower the tax rate for downtown property owners.

The bill (SB 278) must now win the approval of Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

It wasn’t the only legislative proposal Miami-Dade lawmakers, lobbyists and residents were watching Tuesday. The Senate also took up a proposal seeking to ameliorate a backlog of property tax appeals in Miami-Dade County.

The proposal was a high priority for the Miami-Dade Legislative Delegation. Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has long said the backlog prevents the district from getting a share of its property tax money on time. This year, he predicted it would lead to a $40 million budget shortfall.

But the House and Senate could not agree on a bill to address the problem. On Monday, the House passed a sweeping proposal that would have changed the structure of county Value Adjustment Boards, which hear property tax appeals (HB 695). The Senate insisted on a more targeted bill that would have only addressed the school district’s problems (SB 972).

Sen. Anitere Flores, the Miami Republican who chairs the Miami-Dade Delegation, said some of the ideas contained in the House proposal — including a provision that would have allowed state lawmakers to appoint citizen members to their county VABs — had not been fully vetted.

“It is more important to do what is right than to do what is expedient,” she said Tuesday, drawing praise from her fellow senators.

Both bills likely died when the House unexpectedly adjourned on Tuesday afternoon over the budget impasse related to the healthcare debate. The House was scheduled to be in session through Friday.

Sen. Gwen Marglois, D-Miami, said she hoped the House and Senate would reconsider the proposals during an upcoming special session on the budget.

Said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando: “Good luck with that.”

The Legislature was, however, able to pass the bill filed on behalf of Miami’s Downtown Development Authority.

The DDA sought the lawmakers’ help after wrangling for years with a downtown-area property owner who believes the semi-autonomous city agency, which is funded through a special property tax on downtown property owners, lacks the proper authority to levy taxes.

Milan Investment Group has sued the DDA to toss every tax bill the agency has issued since 2008. The business argues that the DDA, created decades ago to spur business downtown, was established through a state law that has since been repealed. Without a state law on the books, or a county vote or referendum by property owners in the taxing district, Milan Investment Group argues that the agency is levying an illegal tax.

DDA executives dismiss the allegations, but believe a new state law would at least help combat the lawsuits going forward.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., who filed the bill in the House, said the law that created the DDA was clear.

“The intent of the legislation from 1965 was to create the Miami DDA and give them taxing authority,” he said.

Diaz pointed out that the bill would also lower taxes on property within the DDA from .5 mills to .475 mills.

“Anytime you can lower taxes, it’s a good thing,” he said.

Most lawmakers agreed. The bill encountered little opposition as it moved through the House and Senate.

Miami Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Alyce Robertson was pleased.

“Downtown Miami stands as one of the fastest growing urban centers in the country and one of Florida’s largest employment hubs,” he said in a statement. “This bill ensures the Miami DDA can continue providing its much needed services and advocacy resources to area stakeholders — a population that has more than doubled since 2000 and growing.”

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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