Miami-Dade County

Under pressure, Miami-Dade commissioner pulls courthouse plan

AGING COURTHOUSE: The courthouse building at 73 West Flagler St. is at the heart of a debate about how to replace it.
AGING COURTHOUSE: The courthouse building at 73 West Flagler St. is at the heart of a debate about how to replace it. MIAMI HERALD FILE

A Miami-Dade County commissioner on Tuesday pulled his plan to increase fees on convicts to fund construction of a new civil courthouse, agreeing to delay consideration until after voters decide whether to raise taxes to build a new courthouse.

Commissioner Javier Souto was under pressure from the pro-tax campaign to withdraw his proposed legislation, since it tracked opponents’ argument that Miami-Dade has other options beyond property taxes to replace its aging, leaky main courthouse. Souto said he received a string of calls from pro-tax advocates “begging” him to delay his legislation, which called for a $75 increase to post-conviction court fees as a possible alternative to the new tax.

“I think we need that building repaired,” said Souto, who joined the majority in September in voting to send the tax question to voters. “I don’t think it’s right to put a tax on people.”

Advocates for the tax plan spoke out against Souto’s resolution before it was announced that the commissioner was withdrawing the legislation. Carlos Martinez, the county’s elected public defender, said the Souto plan would cost more because the higher fees would keep more people incarcerated for unpaid obligations. Souto’s fees would apply to criminal traffic offenses, and Martinez said that would snag people driving with suspended driver licenses.

“This needs additional discussion. There are serious unintended consequences that everyone needs to know about,” Martinez said. “This will result in more people being locked up.”

Miami-Dade can’t raise the fees on its own, and Souto’s resolution called for a change in state law to allow for the new revenue source.

At issue is a proposal before voters to raise property taxes in order to borrow $393 million to replace the current 1928 courthouse, which suffers from mold, floods and other severe signs of age. About $25 million would go to repairs on the existing building, with the rest being used to build a new downtown civil courthouse. County judges are leading the push for the new tax, with Miami-Dade’s legal industry funding the campaign.

Critics of the tax plan say Miami-Dade has other dollars available for about $80 million in temporary repairs, which would buy enough time for a more reasoned consideration about where to put the replacement facility and how to pay for it. If the ballot question passes Nov. 4, Miami-Dade would increase a special property tax that funds voter-approved debt by about $7 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value, according to a Sept. 2 memo by Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

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