Two weeks before Miami-Dade County voters will decide whether to raise taxes to replace an aging courthouse, a pair of county commissioners are pushing alternatives for the effort.
A resolution set for a vote Tuesday calls for a change in state law to help pay for a new courthouse with higher fees people must pay when convicted of crimes. Sponsored by Commissioner Javier Souto, the proposed resolution calls for a $75 increase in court costs paid by those convicted of crimes and criminal traffic offenses.
In September, Souto voted for the legislation that set up the Nov. 4 referendum where county voters will be asked to raise property taxes enough for Miami-Dade to borrow $393 million to build a new civil courthouse in downtown Miami. His resolution describes the convict revenue as “additional or alternative funding” for the courthouse project.
“Access to our judicial system is in peril because of the poor conditions of that courthouse,” said Christian Ulvert, a political consultant working on the courthouse campaign. “We welcome the fact that another leader recognizes the need.”
The Souto resolution touches on a similar approach proposed by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who told commissioners in September that a $48 increase in speeding fines could also fund the courthouse project. At the time, Gimenez said he supported the courthouse-tax question but that he was skeptical voters would pass it.
Bertila Soto, chief judge of the county circuit and a public face of the tax campaign, said the mayor’s speeding-ticket idea wouldn’t work because the higher amount would prompt too many people to not pay the fines.
The new courthouse would replace the current 1928 building, which suffers from leaks, flooding and mold. Of the $393 million, about $25 million would go to repairs at the existing courthouse, which county officials say would extend the building’s lifespan for five years.
While almost all of the new tax dollars would go to building a replacement courthouse, the ballot-question campaign backed by Miami-Dade’s legal industry and featuring Judge Soto, highlights the current building’s disrepair. Critics, led by school-board member Raquel Regalado, say the county has the money to fix the current building and buy the time needed to consider alternate sites and funding options for a replacement.
County legislation sponsored by Commissioner Juan C. Zapata tracks Regalado’s argument. It authorizes $78 million in property-tax spending to fix health at the existing courthouse. The resolution also gives county Mayor Carlos Gimenez the authority to immediately close the courthouse if he determines the building poses a health or safety risk.
Zapata and Esteban “Steve” Bovo were the only two county commissioners to vote against sending the courthouse item to voters, and Zapata said his legislation should be a reminder that Miami-Dade has options to tackle unsafe conditions.
“They say if this [ballot issue] goes down, there’s no plan,” Zapata said. “I’m saying: Hold on a minute.”
Zapata said he was unable to get his resolution on the agenda for Tuesday’s commission meeting, and that he expects it to come before commissioners after Election Day. The $78 million represents unused money from the 2004 Building Better Communities referendum, which authorized Miami-Dade to borrow nearly $3 billion for dozens of needs and then pay back the debt with higher property taxes.
About $78 million allocated for court facilities remains un-borrowed, but advocates of the courthouse item say the BBC money is needed to modernize other parts of the county’s judicial system.
Regalado, who joined Zapata in an Op/Ed slamming the courthouse-tax plan, said the vote-yes campaign is focusing on mold and asbestos issues to the point that Miami-Dade may be vulnerable to lawsuits if the problems aren’t addressed.
“It’s one thing to run a political campaign to get people scared enough to vote,” she said. “It’s another to create an actual liability for the county.”