Miami-Dade County

With little time left, proponents for new Miami-Dade courthouse press case

Green mold can be seen growing on the walls of the top floor of the historic Dade County Courthouse.
Green mold can be seen growing on the walls of the top floor of the historic Dade County Courthouse. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

To raise oodles of cash in a few short weeks for a political campaign, tap the thick checkbooks of Miami-Dade County’s legal community.

That’s what the attorneys pushing for a new civil courthouse did over the past month. They brought in nearly $800,000 over 27 days for their political action committee, Building Blocks for Justice.

The PAC, which is supporting a $393 million bond referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot, began airing “Vote Yes” advertisements last week.

But the organized effort and deep pockets behind it may not be enough to persuade voters on the likely property-tax rate hike for pay for a new building.

“People don’t know the building and don’t immediately realize its importance in their daily lives,” said Ricardo Martinez-Cid, a partner at the Podhurst Orseck law firm and president of the Cuban American Bar Association who has been campaigning for the ballot question. “Add to that the distrust in the community with the Marlins stadium and mismanagement issues at the county, and it becomes a difficult issue.”

A public-opinion poll recently commissioned by Jorge Luis Lopez, an attorney and County Hall lobbyist working pro bono for the campaign, found 60 percent of respondents opposed the initiative and only 25 percent supported it, he said.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Lopez said. “But it’s definitely doable.”

County commissioners signed off on the referendum Sept. 3, agreeing to let voters decide if the local government should build a new facility. The state of Florida pays for court operations and salaries; counties pay for court buildings.

The Dade County Courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St., whose construction began in 1925, has long been too small for the local judiciary. For years, the building has been plagued by a host of problems ranging from water intrusion to a termite infestation.

Though they have known for decades that the courthouse would need replacing, county leaders have not set aside funding for a new building, and they have yet to decide where one would go. The existing structure cannot be demolished because the city of Miami has designated it historic; the county isn’t sure what it would do with it.

Those loose ends should trouble voters, said Raquel Regalado, a Miami-Dade school board member who has been the bond referendum’s most vocal opponent.

“People want to talk about specifics, and they don’t have specifics on their side,” she said of supporters, calling their proposal “half-baked.”

While there is no organized “No” campaign, Regalado has repeatedly taken to Spanish-language media to make her case — to older Cuban-American voters who reliably go to the polls — that the referendum has been rushed and poorly planned. She has also criticized the campaign for failing to spell out, in advertisements showing the rundown courthouse, that the new funding would mostly not go to the existing building.

The backers’ TV spot features close-ups of peeling paint, flooded column bases and moldy walls. Bertila Soto, chief judge over Florida’s 11th judicial circuit, lists the nearly 90-year-old building’s deterioration.

“This is our community, and we can do better,” a female narrator says. “The courthouse no longer serves our growing population.”

The campaign launched a similar ad Monday to air on Spanish-language radio stations.

On Tuesday, commissioners are scheduled to give preliminary approval to a board that would have some oversight of the $393 million in new bonds should voters authorize taking on the debt. The 17-member board would include appointees by the mayor and commission, as well as by the clerk of the courts, state attorney and chief circuit judge.

Only 12 of the 289 donors to the campaign through Sept. 26 listed their professions as something outside the legal field, according to Building Block for Justice’s campaign finance reports. One of them, Turnberry Development, gave $50,000. There are no limits to how much donors can give to political action committees.

Among the law-firm donors, Holland & Knight contributed $50,000, and Grossman Roth $35,000. Several firms contributed $25,000 each, and others $20,000 and $10,000. A few individual donations were for as little as $25 each.

The PAC opened Aug. 30. Fundraiser Brian Goldmeier and campaign manager Christian Ulvert, both Democrats, have been hired to lead the effort.

Ulvert most recently ran the campaign for Daniella Levine Cava, who defeated incumbent Miami-Dade Commissioner Lynda Bell. Goldmeier — who worked for Bell — raised funds for the two successful bond questions for the Jackson Health System and Miami-Dade public school district.

The PAC’s chairwoman is Vivian de las Cuevas-Diaz, a Holland & Knight partner. Its treasurer is Kara Stearns Sharp, an accountant and daughter of attorney Gene Stearns, one of the referendum’s architects.

Campaign organizers have little time to reach out to the general public. The Miami-Dade elections department will start mailing absentee ballots to domestic voters Tuesday. Ballots to voters overseas have already been sent.

Question on the Nov. 4 ballot

“Shall the county fund emergency repairs to the 1928 courthouse and the acquisition and construction of new court facilities by issuing, in one or more series, general obligation bonds paid or secured by taxes derived from the assessed value of property in the county (ad valorem taxes), potentially increasing property taxes, in a principal amount up to 393 million dollars, bearing interest not exceeding maximum legal rate, and maturing within 30 years from issuance?”

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