The city of Miami Gardens wants a permanent stream of revenue from the Miami Dolphins if Sun Life Stadium stops paying about $1 million a year in municipal property taxes, but the team’s owner warned Wednesday that the city cannot count on professional football staying if his latest plan to renovate the stadium fails.
“If I sell the team, I can assure you, with the viewpoint of the politicians and what they want to do, the new owner is going to move the team,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said. Ross wants relief from about $4 million in yearly property taxes in exchange for privately financing a $350 million stadium renovation.
“If I'm putting up all the money, how's it not going to be successful?” he asked. “How could they reject this?”
Ross spent Wednesday trying to bolster support for his bid to have Miami-Dade County assume ownership of his stadium, which opened in 1987, a transfer that would spare the Dolphins a property-tax bill that last year hit $3.8 million. That includes about $1 million each to the county school district and Miami Gardens, where Sun Life is the city’s top property-tax payer.
Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert said he began talks this week with team executives after news broke of Ross’ discussions with Miami-Dade County about the potential swap. Gilbert said he wants a permanent stream of revenue from the Dolphins that would not only match the current tax bill, but keep pace with future growth.
“We need to be able to count on it,” Gilbert said. “I can’t pay my police officers, I can’t pay FPL, I can’t pay teachers we use for after-school activities with uncertainty.”
Miami Gardens might prove to be a key battleground as Ross tries to win the county’s support for his plan to start a renovation as soon as January 2015. County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the Dolphins must find a way to satisfy Miami Gardens and the school system before he would support county ownership of the stadium.
In his first round of interviews on the new plan, Ross touted the swap as fair for the region’s most venerable sports franchise, since the county’s other teams, basketball’s Miami Heat and baseball’s Miami Marlins, both operate county-owned stadiums and pay no property taxes.
Both the Heat and the Marlins receive millions of dollars in hotel-tax revenue to subsidize operations or debt payments, but the Ross proposal would include no payments from government. Ross described the deal as an easy choice for a community interested in remaining home to both the NFL and major events.
“People should be saying, ‘How can we make this happen and get it done fast?’ ” he said. Ross added that this time he would not accept a referendum, which he agreed to last year in his quest to boost hotel taxes to fund the renovation. Miami-Dade commissioners agreed to the referendum, but the vote was called off when state legislators declined to pass the law needed to enact the higher tax.
“When I saw that I'm not going to get it through the Legislature, I looked at a different course of action,” Ross said. “I want to get it done in my lifetime, want it to be part of my legacy. That’s basically the intent of doing it and doing it now, if we're going to get a Super Bowl. And the sooner we get a Super Bowl for South Florida, the better it is for South Florida.”
County Commissioner Sally Heyman praised Ross for his willingness to pursue a renovation plan after last year’s defeat, and suggested stadium revenues may offer a way for the team to get its tax relief while still generating funds for Miami Gardens and the schools.
“If it could be negotiated that the city of Miami Gardens always gets the law-enforcement contracts [needed for major events and games] that would make it up. If we could make it so Miami-Dade schools get a percentage of concessions, that would make it up,” she said. “There are so many possibilities. What’s nice is Mr. Ross is looking at them.”
The Dolphins’ media office released a series of statements supporting Ross and his new stadium plan. The University of Miami — Sun Life’s top tenant after the Dolphins — renewed its support for a renovation, as did the Orange Bowl Committee, which uses Sun Life for the annual college game. While Sun Life used to be on a rotation for the national championship game, the NCAA now requires cities to bid for the event, and Orange Bowl leaders say an improved Sun Life Stadium will help their chances.
“We appreciate Mr. Ross’ personal commitment to optimally positioning South Florida to maintain its historic place in hosting championship college football,” the committee said.
The Dolphins’ latest push for a stadium deal comes after four years of failed attempts to win hotel-tax revenue for a renovation. Ross asked for as much as $16 million a year in the proposed 2013 renovation deal, which would have funded an escalating stream of debt-service payments for the project.
While the amount of public money now at issue is much smaller than during last year’s campaign, Ross, a billionaire real estate developer, must contend with backlash over reducing property taxes at a time when Miami-Dade County is looking to close a budget gap of $40 million this year and $200 million next year. On Wednesday, county rescue chief Dave Downey told commissioners he hopes to finalize a plan to restore the county’s fire-boat squad after budget cuts idled the vessel in 2011.
“It’s tight,” Downey said after speaking to the commission’s the public safety committee. “I’m literally looking at my overtime expenditures every day.”
With Miami-Dade’s libraries facing potential spending cuts, too, advocates pointed to the potential Dolphins deal as a bad idea.
“I already put something on my Facebook page saying ‘Hell no,’ ” said Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner, who is pushing Gimenez to propose higher library taxes to prevent spending cuts. “I am violently opposed to giving [Ross] a tax break.”
The transfer of the stadium’s ownership would not take place until after completion of the renovations, which would take several years. Sun Life would continue to pay property taxes during that time.
Gilbert’s office issued a statement earlier in the day saying it wanted a payment deal that would last “forever,” and extend beyond Ross’ ownership of the team. Gilbert said he had spoken to both Gimenez and Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho about the Dolphins’ plan.
On Wednesday, Carvalho posted a statement that said in part: “While we recognize the economic benefit of a revitalized stadium . . . our children’s education investment cannot be harmed.”
The Dolphins have yet to publicly detail any concessions offered to Miami Gardens or the school system, but CEO Tom Garfinkel said the team would “make Miami Gardens whole.”
During a radio appearance, Ross said spending related to the Super Bowl and college football championships would more than offset the loss of government revenue.
“The benefits that are generated by the events we are doing really will pay back the taxpayers in lieu of the real estate taxes that we’re asking to be abated, several-fold. Probably 10-fold annually because of the dollars that come in here and the impact on business,” Ross told former Dolphin Jimmy Cefalo, host of WIOD’s morning show. “I don’t think anybody would dispute that.”
But while Ross is touting the stadium upgrade’s economic potential, Mayor Gilbert said Miami Gardens enjoys no windfall from major games.
“We lose money when those events come,” he said. “While hotels on Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale may benefit . . . we have to keep police on and don’t get compensated for it in those events.”