Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade courthouse debate extends to task-force report

The historic civil courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. is suffering from old age and is under repair for structural problems from the top floor to the basement.
The historic civil courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. is suffering from old age and is under repair for structural problems from the top floor to the basement. Emily Michot

A county task force studying what to do with downtown Miami’s 87-year-old courthouse recommended building a $360 million replacement — but the suggestion came with a dissenting opinion.

A draft version of the Miami-Dade Court Capital Infrastructure Task Force’s report declares that the county’s 1928 civil courthouse is no longer able to support the judiciary in a “dignified and technologically current” way. It urged construction of a new facility in downtown Miami with double the courtrooms and enough modern offerings to “represent the community’s commitment to the rule of law and equal access to justice.”

Architect Maria Luisa Castellanos, one of seven task-force members, said she couldn’t go along with the idea of using so much government money on a judicial facility she described as a “want” instead of a “need.” So she wrote a minority report outlining her argument, highlighting a larger divide over how to fund new courtrooms for a judiciary after voters last year rejected higher taxes to replace a courthouse erected during the Coolidge administration.

“The court system may want a new 550,000 square foot building, but do they really need it? In my opinion, the answer is ‘No,’” she wrote. Her dissenting report called it rare for a taxpayer to have to enter a courtroom, with affordable housing and public transportation being much more pressing needs. Tax dollars should be spent “on practical and useful projects, not iconic structures,” she wrote.

Paying for the courthouse is a particularly challenging topic, since Miami-Dade voters last year rejected a proposed tax increase to spend $390 million on a new one. There was no chosen site for the new facility or plan for a new building, which backers said was desperately needed given the current courthouse’s issues with mold, leaks and flooding. County officials said those issues were being addressed by ongoing repairs, leaving space as the primary challenge.

The majority report calls for a building with 53 courtrooms to accommodate 53 judges, about double the 26 courtrooms in the current courthouse where 41 judges work. Judge Jennifer Bailey said in an interview that pumping more money into modernizing the 1928 building wouldn’t solve the needs of a judicial system already hampered by inadequate facilities in a growing county.

“There are $110 million worth of repairs that have to be done to this building over the next 10 years, and it would still be too small. And dysfunctional,” Bailey said, citing columns that block the view of some rooms retrofitted to hold trials. “The security separation is a disaster waiting to happen. The judges, the jury — everyone is all in the same space at the same time.”

Castellanos, appointed to the task force by Miami-Dade Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, said she wants Miami-Dade to preserve the lower-floor grand courtrooms, which were designed for trials when the building opened as home of Miami-Dade’s entire government eight decades ago. She urged converting parts of other government buildings to accommodate courtrooms, including one at 140 W. Flagler Street and the complex that houses the county’s downtown library branch.

Last year, county commissioners proposed increasing the county’s special property tax for long-term debt in order to borrow the needed $390 million for a new courthouse. But that required a referendum, and about 65 percent of voters rejected the proposal.

“I felt the public had voiced their opinion that they didn’t want to spend $400 million on a new courthouse facility,” Castellanos said.

The task-force report lists a grab-bag of funding sources that have been part of past discussions on how to fund a new courthouse without a tax increase. Those include a new fee on speeding tickets, a new “impact” fee charged to developers and builders, and selling the 1928 courthouse to raise cash.

Miami-Dade could attempt to borrow construction dollars by pledging the funds to bond holders. But it also is exploring using private financing as part of a development deal that would give one firm a potentially lucrative contract to both build and manage the courthouse for several decades.

Modeled after a financing model known as a “public-private partnership,” the idea is to let a for-profit group pay to build the new courthouse, then be paid back at a mark-up over multiple years while also managing the facility it built.

It’s a model being aggressively pursued by lobbyists and developers across Miami-Dade, and part of a national trend that sees privatization as a more efficient way to build and manage government facilities. Unions and others see the “P3” model as often reliant on rosy projections for cost savings, while skimping on the kind of wages and controls that come with a traditional, government-run project.

All Aboard Florida, the development company creating a massive rail depot nearby in downtown Miami, has discussed serving as the developer for a new courthouse using part of its land at the complex.

Judge Bailey said the task force sees promise in the P3 option because it could be launched quickly.

“The most immediate way to meet the need without significant expenditures from the county would be a public-private partnership,” she said. “You don’t have to put down this big piece of money, but you do have to pay for the money over time.”