By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Last year, local judges and prominent attorneys led an unsuccessful campaign to convince Miami-Dade voters to foot the bill for a new $368 million civil court building, plus $25 million more to fix the iconic Dade County Courthouse. The measure failed 2-to-1 in November.
Now it turns out Miami-Dade County already had a pot of taxpayer money available for the extensive repairs needed at the deteriorating, 87-year-old landmark.
Earlier this month, commissioners authorized $30 million to fix the old courthouse using funds from a $2.9 billion general obligation bond program approved by voters in 2004. The money was part of $78 million that had been set aside for “additional courtrooms and facilities,” according to a list of bond projects.
Critics of the failed campaign to raise the money via the ballot box weren’t happy to learn that there was no need to ask voters for more money to make needed repairs at the old courthouse built in 1928.
“All the county commission had to do was shift the money to fix the building,” said Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado. “But the folks who pushed for the referendum didn’t want to touch that money because it had been earmarked for a new criminal courthouse and a new jail.”
Regalado is a potential opponent of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in 2016. Gimenez spokesman Mike Hernandez disputed Regalado’s comments.
“Spending the entire $78 million was always part of the project,” Hernandez said. “It is a good thing that the county has a source of funds available to address these critical issues.”
Still, the mayor’s office never advocated using the existing bond funds said County commissioner Juan Carlos Zapata, another critic of going to the voters seeking more money for courthouses.
Gimenez and Regalado are also on opposite sides on the need for a replacement courthouse.
BACKERS SAY NEW COURTHOUSE NEEDED
Proponents say a replacement is needed because the county’s civil judicial system has outgrown the old courthouse and that it is falling apart after decades of neglect. Among the physical problems: decaying structural columns and black mold from continual flooding in the basement and in water logged walls.
Regalado vociferously opposes using taxpayer funds to construct a new courthouse. Gimenez supports a new building, but did not actively campaign for it.
Looking for a politically acceptable way to make it happen, the mayor and the Commissioner Zapata are now backing a plan to solicit proposals from private developers to build a new courthouse.
Meanwhile, the county still has to fix the courthouse at 73 West Flagler Street because it cannot be razed due to its historic designation by the City of Miami. The building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“When this campaign came out of nowhere to hit up taxpayers for $400 million, I asked why aren’t we discussing the (general obligation) bond money?” Zapata said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m surprised the administration didn’t say, ‘until we come up with a better plan, we can use this money in the meantime.’”
In October, Zapata sponsored a resolution to allocate the entire $78 million for repairs at the old, downtown courthouse, but it was tabled until after the election. He slashed the request to $30 million after staffers from the internal services department, which manages county-owned properties, informed him the courthouse didn’t need all the funds for the repairs.
The county commission unanimously approved the funds transfer at its Feb. 4 regular meeting,
In a January memo to the commission, Mayor Gimenez said the county already has repaired 14 columns at the courthouse at a cost of $547,000. He said another $22 million must be spent to fix the remaining 114 columns and stop flooding in the basement. The remaining $7 million will be used to pay for an overhaul of the building’s electrical and plumbing systems.
In previous years, the county delayed or scrapped funding to address some of the problems that have been plaguing the Flagler Street courthouse. When voters approved the $2.9 billion bond program in 2004, $18 million was designated for a new heating and air conditioning system, new electrical wiring and panels, and ne plumbing pipes to replace originals dating to the 1920s when the building was new.
But in 2009, commissioners diverted those funds for the restoration of the courthouse facade after the original estimate of $15 million more than doubled. The facade project did not begin until 2013 and $35 million has been spent to date.
“The electorate approved all this money in 2004 and more than a decade passes before the county does anything with it,” Regalado said. “They should have been using it once they found out about the problems.”