By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
A retired Miami Heat NBA champion who is now one of the team’s top executives. A plastic surgeon who bills himself as the pre-eminent expert of Brazilian butt lifts. Trusts in the name of a disbarred lawyer convicted of selling stolen guns he believed belonged to Saddam Hussein and an auto magnate who sold his dealership for $21 million. And the son of a Miami-Dade development pioneer who built a hotel and country club that is today the Trump National Doral Miami.
These individuals and entities are among 739 property owners in Pinecrest who would receive taxpayer subsidized hook-ups to Miami-Dade Water and Sewer if city voters pass a controversial referendum to issue $15 million in bonds.
The measure has sharply divided Pinecrest residents. Opponents accuse a pro-referendum political action committee and its supporters of running a misinformation campaign pushing for a hastily called special election that could only benefit a small fraction of Pinecrest’s homes, including some owned by high-profile millionaires.
Voters began mailing their ballots on March 6 and have until March 26 to submit their votes. As of March 18, 27.86 percent of the city’s electorate had cast ballots. The measure would also fund the installation of 208 additional fire hydrants in Pinecrest.
“There was a rush to get this on a ballot,” said Harry Speizer, a homeowner campaigning against the referendum. “The other side is using emotional arguments to push it through and those opposed to it didn’t get a fair opportunity to speak up. They had a year to prepare and we only had three weeks.”
James McDonald, the only Pinecrest village council member to vote against holding the referendum, accused his colleagues of rushing to call a citywide election to push through bad public policy. At a Jan. 17 special meeting, the council voted 4-1 to have the referendum.
“The mayor called the meeting on two-day’s notice,” McDonald told Florida Bulldog. “This was short notice for something of this magnitude. I am not advocating taxing the entire community for infrastructure that we have to hand over to the county and that will only benefit a small number of properties. Pinecrest is handing these homes a gift.”
‘Our most difficult problem’
Pinecrest Mayor Joseph M. Corradino denied that he rammed through the special meeting, noting the council held various workshops for more than a year to tackle important issues facing the village. “The water problem is our most difficult problem,” Corradino said. “We met every month and discussed how to address this. It should be a surprise to nobody.”
Corradino said he is not advocating for or against the referendum, but that he believed now is the right time for the village to give residents the choice of whether or not all Pinecrest homeowners will be hooked up to the county’s water and sewer system. “There are very good reasons the community should do it and many reasons why they should not do it,” Corradino said. “I believe we have to ask the question and if it fails, we will move on to the next way of solving the problem.”
For decades, many homes in Pinecrest relied on wells and septic tanks. When the village incorporated in 1996, 1,500 properties out of 6,000 were without county water. In the mid-2000s, Pinecrest received $4.5 million from a Miami-Dade general obligation bond program that financed water hook-ups for roughly a third of the 1,500 homes.
The village also got a $1.5 million state grant to build connections up to the sidewalks of some properties that did not have county hook-ups. Builders who redeveloped some of the remaining homes put in the hook-ups to the county system and baked in the cost into their sale prices. And roughly 200 owners paid for the hook-ups out of their own pockets. But 739 homes remain without access to Miami-Dade’s infrastructure.
If the referendum passes, the average Pinecrest property owner would have to pay an additional 23 cents per $1,000 of taxable value every year, which is about $158 annually. Some, of course, would pay a much higher rate given the high property values in some Pinecrest neighborhoods.
Florida Bulldog did a cursory review of 35 houses without water hook-ups identified in a village map. The properties are lavish homes that have more than three bedrooms and three bathrooms, as well as backyard pools. Three are owned by real estate investment companies and one is the home of former Pinecrest councilwoman Cherilyn Ball and her husband Charles. They own a two-floor house with six bedrooms and four bathrooms that they paid $1.6 million for in 2016. Ball is also treasurer of the pro-water, hook-up PAC, Pinecrest H20.
Another home — a six-bedroom, five-bathroom villa with 5,257 square feet of living area, a pool and a basketball court — is owned by a trust in the name of former lawyer David P. Ryan. Ryan was disbarred in 2010 for misappropriating client funds and pleaded guilty five years later to illegal gun trafficking for trying to sell stolen rifles he believed once belonged to Saddam Hussein.
Some owners without water hook-ups are prominent and wealthy members of Miami’s business community. Alonzo Mourning, a Miami Heat vice-president who was the team’s leading star in the 1990s and a member of its 2006 NBA title team, and wife Traci own a two-story, six-bedroom, seven-bath estate. The couple, who are divorcing per a recent Page Six report, bought it for $2 million in 2004.
- Developer William Kaskel, whose father Alfred Kaskel built the Doral Hotel and Country Club, which is today is the Trump National Doral Miami. He owns a five bedroom, five bathroom house with a pool. He paid $405,000 for the land in 1999 and built the house a year later. According to Zillow, the property is worth an estimated $2.8 million.
- Constantino Mendieta, a plastic surgeon who “basically pioneered the Brazilian butt lift,” according to his website, buttsbymendieta.com. He owns a two-story mansion with seven bedrooms, seven-and-a-half bathrooms, 9,023 square feet of living area and a pool. Mendieta paid $3.9 million for the property in 2007. It’s now worth $4.6 million, according to Zillow.
- A trust in the name of Ralph Sifford, a car dealer who sold his West Kendall dealership for $21 million in 2016. The 7,487 square foot house has two floors, four bedrooms, five bathrooms and a pool. Sifford bought the land in 2015 for $2 million. The house he built is worth an estimated $3.3 million according to Zillow.
Despite the well-to-do stature of some of the owners who would receive taxpayer subsidized water hook-ups, referendum supporters insist the $15 million public works project is necessary for the well-being of the entire village.
“I understand it seems unfair to so many people,” Ball said. “But providing fire hydrant and water access no matter who benefits is a gift we can offer our neighbors and not be so divisive about it. This is a third world problem we shouldn’t have.”
Speizer said opponents have avoided specifically naming property owners that would get taxpayer subsidized water hookups, and that it is a point of contention.
“There is a war between those who feel entitled to this and by those who feel like they are being ripped off,” he said.