Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade courthouse fix could include new jails, too

The historic civil courthouse at 73 West Flagler Street presents no health hazards -- at least for now, according to the administration of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
The historic civil courthouse at 73 West Flagler Street presents no health hazards -- at least for now, according to the administration of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Emily Michot

Miami-Dade County may set up a bidding bonanza by soliciting proposals on building not only a new civil courthouse, but also a new criminal courthouse, a new county jail and other justice-system facilities.

The bones of the proposal won support Wednesday from the county commission’s public safety committee, an early win for private contractors and financiers eager to bid on contracts that could approach $1 billion. The idea is to invite developers to propose private-financing plans to build some or all of the justice-system facilities that Miami-Dade wants.

That list includes the new civil courthouse that was the subject of a failed ballot measure last year, a renovated criminal courthouse by the Miami River and at least one new county jail for a detention system currently under federal supervision for improper conditions.

Government dollars would ultimately pay all the costs, including the developers’ profits. But by using a “private-public partnership,” Miami-Dade could use private financing to avoid upfront costs and have a developer assume the risk of cost overruns and delays that otherwise can increase the price tag of a publicly financed project. The developer would manage the justice-system facilities for a set annual fee from the county, but county staff would continue operating the jails.

Miami-Dade would tap property-tax borrowing already approved in a 2004 ballot issue for some of the money, redirect existing operating funds to the developer, and probably sell county land to raise cash for the effort.

The financing plan, sponsored by Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, could tie up an effort by county judges and lawyers to quickly settle on a replacement strategy for the 1928 civil courthouse. Voters in November rejected a tax increase to fund a $390 million replacement of the courthouse to be built somewhere downtown, with county officials in talks with All Aboard Florida to possibly put it on part of the land the company secured for a new train-depot complex.

But a proposal by contractor Munilla Construction Management would build the new courthouse off Northwest 12th Street, next to the county’s existing Richard E. Gerstein criminal courthouse.

The idea would be to combine some shared services, such as parking and jury-pool facilities, while giving an economic boost to the relatively scruffy area that surrounds the criminal courthouse and nearby Jackson medical campus. But the plan, backed by Zapata, would also shift the center of gravity for Miami’s legal industry, and the idea drew criticism from the committee’s chairwoman.

“As long as civil is proposed to be added to the criminal justice compound, I won’t support it,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman, saying the combination would worsen the traffic bog that often forms around the area known as the Civic Center. “There is one exit off the expressway there, and it’s always clogged up.”

In a statement, Chief Judge Bertila Soto said: “We are open to all options that meet the needs of the courts and this community.”

In its corner, MCM has state Rep. Erik Fresen, a Republican lawmaker who signed on as a lobbyist for the contractor. But with at least three major construction projects in the mix, other big players are maneuvering to make a bid, according to people familiar with the process. The Geo Group, a prison-management company in Boca Raton that also builds jails, has signed up procurement lobbyist Luis Gazitua and Ron Book, one of the top lobbyists in Florida.

“There is going to be at least six proposers,” Fresen said after the meeting.

Budget documents last year said it would cost about $330 million to build a new 2,000-bed county jail near the federal detention center off Krome Avenue. Fresen said MCM would propose a 5,000-bed facility there, with another 1,700-bed companion jail to rise next to the county’s existing Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center jail in Doral. The new civil courthouse proposed to voters carried a $365 million price tag, but there were no cost estimates available Wednesday for redoing the criminal courthouse.

The addition of a major jail construction effort complicates what had been a debate over what to do about the 1928 civil courthouse. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued a memo to commissioners this week saying the building does not present any health hazards for workers and visitors, and that chronic leaks at the building should be fixed by next summer.

While judges and the legal industry have portrayed the courthouse situation as a crisis, critics led by school board member Raquel Regalado see the alarm as a way to rush through approval of a new courthouse.

“Clearly the administration knew that the campaign for the [courthouse] bond was misleading the public by saying that the building was sick,” Regalado, a potential Gimenez challenger in 2016, said in a statement Wednesday.

In her statement, Chief Judge Soto said the leaks continue even as the mayor issued his statement. “Yesterday and today, we’ve had active water leaks due to rain in courtrooms on two floors while court was in session — including the historic courtroom on the 6th floor,” she wrote.

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