Miami-Dade County

Miami courthouse measure fails; FIU expansion passes

The Dade County Courthouse at 73 W. Flagler has fallen into disrepair.
The Dade County Courthouse at 73 W. Flagler has fallen into disrepair. Al Diaz / Miami Herald Staff

Miami-Dade voters rejected a $390 million plan to replace the county’s aging downtown courthouse, but easily approved turning over a fairgrounds site to Florida International University for a campus expansion.

“The voters want more and better educational opportunities at FIU and for the community,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg said about 90 minutes after the polls closed Tuesday. “I think the voters understand education and jobs go together.”

With more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, the courthouse measure was failing by about a 2-1 margin: 64 percent voted no and 36 percent voted yes. The margin essentially flipped for the FIU question, with 65 percent voting yes and 35 percent no.

A trio of ballot measures tied to loosening rules on construction at county parks, including allowing libraries inside recreational centers, also passed by healthy margins.

Passage of the FIU ballot item capped an aggressive campaign by campus leaders and alumni to pass the measure, but many challenges remain before the state school can take over the 64 acres currently occupied by the county Youth Fair. The non-profit fair’s contract with Miami-Dade requires the county to find it a comparable site and pay millions to build new facilities.

The courthouse item presented much higher stakes, with Miami-Dade’s legal establishment pushing for a property-tax increase to move the county’s civil court out of a 1928 downtown building suffering from leaks, mold and crowded quarters. Opponents, led by Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, warned voters of a rushed process, saying other locations and funding sources should be considered.

“It’s a clear mandate against burdening taxpayers for Miami-Dade County’s mismanagement. It’s an indictment against the county’s lack of planning,” Regalado said Tuesday night. “We all agreed there was a problem. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet” for fixing it.

In a statement, the county’s chief civil judge, Bertila Soto, called the ballot defeat “disappointing” but also a success for achieving “a universal consensus that conditions at the Dade County Courthouse are dire and solutions are required immediately.”

With the courthouse measure defeated, the debate shifts to a plan for the existing courthouse.

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez floated a plan to raise speeding fines to finance construction of a replacement, and a proposal before county commissioners would taking funding from other judicial projects to fix up the existing courthouse. Regalado wants Miami-Dade to consider partnerships with municipalities to build courthouse facilities farther west than in Miami as part of a larger look at the county’s judicial buildings.

The three parks questions rewrite Article 7 of the county charter to loosen restrictions on other uses allowed for Miami-Dade parkland. Voters approved a blanket exemption for libraries, provided they move into existing recreational facilities at parks. Despite opposition from library advocates, the question passed comfortably, with 65 percent voting yes and 35 percent voting no.

Article 7 already exempts a long list of parks with facilities and some for-profit operations, including the Youth Fair site, Vizcaya, Marine Stadium, and the Seaquarium. The two other parks questions on the November ballot add two more.

By a 60-40 margin, voters approved allowing cabins and lodges at Camp Matecumbe. The margin was slightly smaller — 54 percent yes to 46 percent no — for a question allowing a privately run soccer camp to occupy a former landfill off Northwest 58th Street. The vacant site is now officially named the Miami-Dade Regional Soccer Park.

The FIU question also rewrites Article 7, since the Youth Fair occupies part of Tamiami Park. The fair didn’t officially oppose the FIU ballot item, but ran full-page newspaper ads telling voters how complicated a relocation would be even after passage. With Miami-Dade contractually bound to pay for the fair’s relocation, Rosenberg pledged to secure state dollars to fund both the expansion and the cost of moving the fair. One county estimate put the tab at about $230 million.

In an election night statement, the fair’s president congratulated FIU and said fair executives “remain open to a resolution” that works for both sides.

“This issue is of great importance to FIU, since it removes a legal obstacle to its planned expansion,” said Robert Hohenstein, president of the Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition. “In the larger picture, it is a procedural step in a long process.”