Science museum drops plans to seek bond issue
By Shannon Pettypiece
A $1.6 billion countywide bond issue due to go on the November 2004 ballot is to include financing to build two museums and renovations to the Freedom Tower, among other targets yet to be determined.
A resolution the Miami-Dade County Commission approved Tuesday orders the county manager's office to start organizing community meetings to seek input on what projects a bond issue should fund and how to divide the money.
Despite County Mayor Alex Penelas' plan to give the community a chance to weigh in on a bonding proposal with no specific projects attached, the commission voted to automatically include the Miami Art Museum, the Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium and renovations to the Freedom Tower.
Mayor Penelas said the decision-making on what to fund with the bonds should mimic the grassroots nature of last year's campaign for the half-cent sales tax increase for transportation.
"We should not mention any projects in this resolution," he told commissioners. "If we are going to start discussing now what projects will be included we are just paying lip service to the grassroots notion."
Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler, who wrote the resolution including the museums, said if the museums were not included in a referendum from the start the science museum was likely to pursue its own $200 million bond issue that would complete with the countywide bonding.
"We need to give the Museum of Science and (the Miami Art Museum) what would make them to feel comfortable," Ms. Carey-Shuler said.
Commissioner Natacha Seijas introduced an amendment adding Freedom Tower renovations to the proposal. Although the Freedom Tower is privately owned, she suggested changing its financial status so it would be eligible for bond money.
"The Freedom Tower needs to be in this along with those museums," Commissioner Seijas said.
Commissioner Katy Sorenson said the bond issue is more likely to pass if the symbolic Freedom Tower is guaranteed some money.
"By including the Freedom Tower it increases the likelihood of this passing," Commissioner Sorenson said.
Commissioners suggested several other projects that were not included in Tuesday's proposal but could appear on the November 2004 referendum, like water and sewer improvements, housing, parks, community centers, roadways, correctional facilities and juvenile detention centers.
"We have identified up to $5 billion in unmet capital improvements needed," Mayor Penelas said. "We hope to present in April or May a list of community-selected programs."
The next step is for the county manager's office to develop a plan for public input. By April the county expects to draft a referendum to be approved for the ballot.
The county this year will pay off debt on a 30-year old countywide bond commonly referred to as the Decade of Progress bond. When that is paid off, either taxes will be decreased or, if the proposed $1.6 billion bond is approved, stay the same.
While bonds could not be issued until after the November 2004 election, the old bond will be paid off Oct. 1, 2004, which could affect the taxation transition.
"We are taking advantage of a debt service millage that is retiring, so it wouldn't require a tax increase," said Assistant County Manager Corinne Brody last month. "We want to have this identified by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30 of next year."
The proposed bond would replace the $560 million Decade of Progress Bond voters passed in 1972. It provided $2 billion in total funding with state and federal matching funds. It used $77.4 million for Jackson Memorial Hospital, $132.5 million for mass transit and funds to create Metrozoo and Tropical Park, a recreation facility at 7900 SW 40 St.
While past county managers have tried to get a new multi-purpose bond issue on the ballot, the concept had dropped off the radar screen for two years. But county officials are taking a fresh look at the idea this year since the Decade of Progress bond is about to be paid off and a new $1.2 billion or $1.3 billion issue could take its place without raising taxes.