Miami Dolphins stadium renovation will go to voters, county commission decides

The Miami-Dade Commission on Wednesday approved asking voters to raise hotel taxes for a renovation of the Miami Dolphins’ stadium , a $289 million payout that Mayor Carlos Gimenez said breaks new ground in how government subsidizes sports facilities.

The vote set up what the county elections chief said would be the fastest referendum ever held by Miami-Dade, with voters on May 14 considering a plan that was only released in detail late Tuesday. The urgency is driven by the contest between Miami Gardens and Santa Clara, Calif., for Super Bowl 50, which the National Football League will award no later than May 22.

“We owe to the community the ability for them to decide what they want,” Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said. “It will take away a little bit of the pain from the past.”

Nearly five hours of discussion brought few surprises, as commissioners were expected to approve the plan endorsed by Gimenez, who won office in large part for his 2009 opposition to building the Miami Marlins a new, mostly publicly financed ballpark. Backlash against that agreement dominated Wednesday, with commissioners frequently pointing out differences between the Marlins deal and the plan proposed for Sun Life Stadium.

One measure of the lingering political fallout: It took 90 minutes before any speaker dared to utter the word “Marlins,” though there were ample references to “the other deal.”

The day did bring one twist: Gimenez had demanded early on that tax money be awarded only if the NFL gave Miami Gardens the milestone 50th Super Bowl, or, the 51st as a consolation prize. Both will be awarded by NFL owners by May 22, a week after the referendum.

NFL executives pushed back, and one of the mayor’s aides said it was the last significant sticking point in negotiations that stretched near midnight on Monday. On Wednesday, Dolphins CEO Mike Dee revealed that league officials were opposed to allowing Miami-Dade to link stadium funds with the award of a specific game, so the ballot language was changed to approve the tax hike as long as Miami is awarded any Super Bowl in May.

Dee said the original plan might make NFL owners feel that Ross had “contaminated the integrity of the process.”

Still, Gimenez and at least one commissioner said they would not look kindly on having the NFL unexpectedly award Sun Life a later Super Bowl. “I don’t want 52,” the mayor said.

Commissioners cast two votes: one to set the special election, and the other to give conditional approval to the renovation deal.

The referendum is contingent on state legislation that the Florida House or Senate have yet to pass.

Voting for the referendum in a 9-2 vote were Sosa and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss, Javier Souto and Juan C. Zapata. Voting against were Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Xavier Suarez. Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioner Audrey Edmonson were out of town.

The vote to endorse the deal was 8-3, with Zapata switching to “no.”

That vote was preliminary, pending voter approval and two additional commission votes to hike the hotel-tax rate to 7 percent from 6 percent. The second of those votes, to take place after the referendum but before the NFL owners meeting, would include the first and only public hearing.

There was no public forum Wednesday, though groups linked to the deal — the Dolphins, the Super Bowl host committee and the Greater Miami Visitors & Convention Bureau — had their say.

Miami-Dade would provide the football team with about $7.5 million a year, for a total of $289 million over 26 years. The Dolphins will refund the county between $112 million and $120 million in 30 years.

Gimenez said the county would benefit because the Dolphins have agreed to bring a number of major sporting events, including four Super Bowls, over the next three decades, or pay up to $120 million in penalties in 30 years.

“These events provide a big shot in the arm to our local economy and represent a clear return to our investment,” he said.

But a few commissioners elected in the wake of the Marlins deal questioned the wisdom of giving public money to a private stadium owned by a billionaire, developer Stephen Ross.

“It is time to reconsider whether these taxes should be used for these type of purposes,” Suarez said. “Many Floridians are getting tired of bailing out big franchises.”

Bovo argued putting the proposal to voters would provide political cover for the commission. “We’re kind of like Pontius Pilate wiping our hands clean of this,” he said.

Bovo and Zapata also worried about the ballot language, which they suggested was written to favor approving the deal. For example, the language mentions “additional” hotel taxes, which Bovo said should be amended to “an increase” in taxes.

“What keeps popping in my head is that this was written by a pollster,” Zapata said. Gimenez later said sharply that county attorneys drafted the language to “accurately” reflect the deal.

Jordan, the item’s sponsor, refused ballot changes, except for the Dolphins-backed amendment to remove mention of Super Bowl 50 or 51.

Also troubling commissioners was how many local construction workers the renovation project would employ. While the county cannot require that a certain proportion of workers live in Miami-Dade or Miami Gardens, or be minorities, the Dolphins had agreed to an “aspirational goal” of having half of the workers live in Miami-Dade, and 5 percent in Miami Gardens.

“I just don’t see a whole lot of folks who look like me in many of these projects,” said Moss, who is black.

Dee said the team would commit to raising those percentages, and the proportion of minority-owned subcontractors hired, in addition to creating a countywide diversity plan for the renovation.

Moss also asked how much the NFL would contribute toward the renovation. A county consultant concluded the Dolphins would qualify for about $150 million in league financing that, according to the report, is paid back by team revenues that otherwise would have been paid to the league itself.

The report called the arrangement “cash-flow neutral” for a team. Said Moss: “You can see why some people would refer to it as more of a grant ... I’m still a bit concerned about that.”

Dee countered that the loan must be paid back with team profits if the renovation does not generate enough new revenue for the team to cover the debt, and he noted the Dolphins have essentially been paying for other stadium construction across the country and now has the chance to bring the dollars to Miami Gardens.

“We are bringing money from other NFL communities,” he said.

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