Miami-Dade County

How would you spend $400 million in Miami? City can't decide.

City of Miami Manager Emilio Gonzalez speaks at a press conference in January 2018.
City of Miami Manager Emilio Gonzalez speaks at a press conference in January 2018.

Almost eight months after Miami voters agreed to allow the city to borrow $400 million to stem flooding, build affordable housing and improve parks, the city has not produced a list of priority projects to fund.

The lack of a plan frustrated Commissioner Ken Russell enough that he tried to earmark $2 million of future bond money for rehabilitation of lower-income homes in his district — a measure that failed at Thursday's commission meeting while sparking a debate about whether the city should start proposing projects soon without a comprehensive list.

The fear among administrators is that commissioners could all try to get equal cuts of the bond money for each of their districts, even if the needs are greater in some districts than in others. City Manager Emilio Gonzalez said he's meeting with his senior staff Monday to discuss the status of each department's work on developing projects.

"We’re bringing in all of our senior people, our experts, to look at how best to move forward, to look at what our priorities are," he said. "We want to be very methodical and very transparent."

Gonzalez said an initial round of projects will be identified within the next few months. The city has not gone to market with the bonds yet.

The city manager's concerns were echoed by Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who said the administration needs a comprehensive list before making earmarks.

"One thing I don't want to see is this thing become a piñata," he said.

Still, Russell aired his impatience with the slow pace of government and argued that he called for a relatively small request —2 percent of a $100 million category promised for housing.

"I don’t understand why we have not been brought the potential projects," he said. "I’m putting out there a very simple and small one that we can all agree on."

In the end, none of his colleagues agreed with it enough to vote for it. Russel withdrew the request. He also pointed out that a citizen oversight board meant to oversee the bond spending has five of seven appointed positions filled, but they have yet to meet. The two remaining appointments are supposed to come from commissioners Keon Hardemon and Reyes.

When Russell asked why they haven't met even though they have enough members to meet, bureaucrats across the room shrugged their shoulders.

Fernando Casamayor, assistant city manager and chief financial officer, told the Miami Herald that funneling bond dollars to initiatives such as private property renovations comes with significant restrictions, making Russell's proposition more complicated than it may seem. Such rehabilitation would have to serve the public good, which in Russell's case would mean keeping longstanding homeowners in their homes longer.

To make that happen, the public dollars would have to come with an obligation that the homeowner doesn't flip the home after renovations.

"If you're going to give public money to private property owners, you would need to be sure a public good is established and will be there for the life of the bond," Casamayor said.

The Forever bond, championed by former mayor Tomás Regalado and Russell during the campaign, was advertised with the following spending categories defined before the vote:

$192 million for anti-flooding pumps, seawall improvements, drainage upgrades and other adaptation projects in the face of sea level rise.

$100 million for affordable housing and economic development.

$78 million for parks and cultural facilities.

$23 million for road improvements.

$7 million for public safety.

Some commissioners pointed to recent turnover in city leadership — Gonzalez took over Miami's bureaucracy in January — as an obstacle to faster planning because the city manager has shuffled his staff since he arrived. Commissioner Joe Carollo also alluded to the city's checkered past with issuing bonds as cause for going slow and making sure the city's finances are in order before going out to market.

Miami recently lost a whistle-blower lawsuit from a former independent auditor who in 2009 uncovered that the administration was playing shell games with the municipal budget, shifting public money around its coffers to make the city's finances look healthier than they truly were in order to convince investors to buy municipal bonds. Following an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, a federal jury ruled in 2016 that the city had defrauded investors.

Given the past, Miami's leadership will need do its homework very carefully and check it twice. Then probably once more.

"We need to be lily-white here because this city, whether we like it or not, we’ve taken a couple of black eyes when it comes to bonds," Gonzalez said.