By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org
As judges and lawyers embark on a campaign to convince Miami-Dade voters to foot the bill for a new $368 million courthouse, it turns out taxpayers have already contributed $18.1 million to pay for extensive repairs to downtown’s landmark courthouse that have been repeatedly delayed.
Ten years ago, the county earmarked the funds to fix the courthouse’s air conditioning system, plumbing, and electrical systems, county records and interviews with officials in charge of the Dade County Courthouse show. The county commission subsequently diverted the $18.1 million to restore the historic landmark’s crumbling facade, a project that got under way in July of last year.
The delays are indicative of the county’s mismanagement of the Flagler Street building, said Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado, an outspoken critic of using more taxpayer funds for a new courthouse.
“Voters have a right to know who is responsible for the conditions at 73 W Flagler,” Regalado said. “Approving this tax will result in a restored and abandoned historic courthouse in the heart of the city.”
County commissioners voted 11-2 on Sept. 2 to place a question on the November ballot asking the electorate to approve a $393 million bond issue backed by property taxes.
A political action committee organized by well-connected Miami attorney Gene Stearns plans to raise more than $1 million to galvanize voters.
In addition to a new 620,000-square-foot courthouse, the county would use $25 million to maintain the Flagler building for up to five more years. County officials have not said what would become of the historic structure after that. It could be used for county office space, sold or leased to private developers.
Property owners in Miami-Dade would face an additional $7 per year in taxes on every $100,000 of a property’s assessed value.
Built between 1925 and 1928 using steel, granite and tera cotta, the Dade County Courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Yet it has fallen into an unsightly state of disrepair and some areas of the building are considered dangerous workplaces. It cannot be razed because it is designated as historic by the City of Miami.
ROOF LEAKS, FLOODS
The roof leaks water and the basement floods. Water intrusion resulted in the closing of the top floor of the 25-story building. Recently, a contractor found “black” mold on the 22nd and 23rd floors, forcing employees to work from home.
Things have gotten so bad the courthouse can’t pass a city code inspection that takes place every 40 to 50 years to re-certify the building as safe for public use.
According to an Aug. 7 letter to the Flagler courthouse’s building manager, Miami’s Code Compliance Office threatened demolition if the county doesn’t re-certify the building soon. Inspectors also posted notices on the Roman-style columns near the front and rear entrances of the building.
Nearly two months later, officials from the Miami-Dade Internal Services Department, which maintains county real estate, have not responded to the city.
Internal Services Director Lester Sola insisted the county is not avoiding the recertification process. The last one was in 1976, according to city building records. He claims the courthouse’s building manager never received the city’s correspondence or saw the posted notices.
“The county first became aware of this on Sept. 9 when ISD staff was at the city of Miami requesting any and all documentation relating to 73 W Flagler,” Sola said.
He said the county has been addressing deficiencies with the building since last year to bring 73 W Flagler into compliance. “The county also brought in a consultant to provide recommendations that would bring the building up to date with the recertification,” Sola said.
However, over the last decade the county has scrapped and delayed funding for projects that would address the building’s deplorable conditions.
PRIOR BOND ISSUE
In 2004, Miami-Dade voters green-lighted a $2.9 billion bond program that included $5.7 million to replace the Flagler courthouse’s heating and air conditioning system, $2.8 million for new electrical wiring and panels, and $9.6 million to replace plumbing pipes that date back to the 1920s.
Five years later, county commissioners diverted those funds for the facade, which has become so porous it acts like a sponge, retaining large amounts of water during heavy rainfalls.
A July 21, 2009 memo from then-County Manager George Burgess to commissioners states the original estimate of $15 million for the facade restoration was off by roughly $18 million. “This work must be completed prior to the other projects,” Burgess wrote. “Or those projects will not be effective in the long-term due to the unabated water intrusion.”
Yet, county records show work on the facade restoration, which now stands to cost $35 million, did not begin until last year.
An April 2, 2013 memo from Mayor Carlos Gimenez to county commissioners, partly explains the delays were the result of “a multi-year process of research, evaluation, and development of construction documents to support a restoration plan that started in 2007.” Four months later, the scaffolding finally went up. The restoration won’t be finished until 2016, Sola said.
At the same time, the county began to address some of the courthouse’s myriad of other problems. Since 2013, Internal Services has spent approximately $25,000 on some electrical upgrades and roughly $1.1 million replacing the heating and air conditioning systems on the 3rd, 14th and 15th floors. Earlier this year, repairs began on the structural columns in the basement.
“We’ve also stationed construction staff on and off the facility since 2013 to initiate repairs as needed,” Sola said.
Still, the delays should concern voters, according to Regalado.
“Now that we are at the point of crisis we need to know how did we ended up in this predicament,” she said.