Start construction now — but not on global agreement jobs
By Michael Lewis
Odds keep mounting against a bundle of local projects so broad that even its creators label it a global agreement.
How much longer before elected officials admit that their hastily approved plan to spend $3 billion needs to be broken apart and then examined piece by piece for feasibility?
For taxpayers' sake, that should come quickly.
We're speaking here of the reverse Robin Hood plan whereby nearly $2 billion in taxes intended for Miami's poorest areas would be diverted to massive public works packages that can't even charitably be construed as anti-poverty efforts.
Among targets: a $525 million (truly far more) baseball stadium, paving the way to pave Bicentennial park for an art and a science museum, a truck tunnel to the Port of Miami, and a streetcar line that actually might aid the people in our poorer areas.
There's also a huge pot of money destined for the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, but that's just to shift who pays existing debts. The county would hand responsibility off to the City of Miami, but the arts center wouldn't get a thin dime more.
Three weeks ago we noted boulders in the global agreement's gears: the city rightly demanded more say in the arts center if it had to assume $300 million-plus in county debt; the city sued the county, which had promised to facilitate a huge housing project in the city's low-income Overtown area but instead wanted to snatch away land on which the project would rise; attorneys found illegal the deal to repay federal loans for private tourist attraction Jungle Island with redevelopment agency funds; and the city reneged on providing 12,000 baseball stadium parking spaces, saying 6,000 was tops.
Since then, this house of cards has been further shaken.
Car dealer Norman Braman sued in circuit court to kill key elements. His suit says $50 million that voters approved to upgrade the Orange Bowl can't be used to help build a baseball stadium on the site after the bowl instead of being renovated is razed. The suit says holders of arts center construction bonds would be cheated if that money were, as proposed, shifted to help build a stadium. And he alleges that brokering the massive global agreement in private violated Florida's sunshine law.
Regardless of what the court decides was or wasn't legal, clearly all three actions were dead wrong.
Mr. Braman also might challenge expansion of community redevelopment agency zones so that taxes meant to end the blight could instead aid the mighty.
Another impediment to this global agreement is the stadium deal being crafted to increase profits of Florida Marlins owners. Outrage should build as details of the team's deal with government emerge.
As we revealed last week, the Marlins are seeking $6.1 million in sales tax exemptions and local impact fee waivers in a deal that would cost taxpayers more by the minute.
We also revealed that the Marlins want government to give them 3,000 square feet of office space within two miles of the stadium, possibly in upscale Brickell quarters that could approach $50 a square foot — $150,000 a year in free rent. As rents escalate over the decades of this lease, that could total $6 million free rent outside the stadium. What other business in the free world could demand this perk with a straight face?
And don't forget, we haven't seen all of the stadium deal — nor have commissioners who would vote on it. How much more do they need before they say "forget about it?"
As these impediments arise, construction costs rise faster. Whatever the massive projects were to cost when they were unveiled in December is out of date.
As the New York Times reported Saturday, "State and local governments in many parts of the country are struggling to pay for roads, bridges and other building projects because of rising construction costs, adding another burden to budgets already stressed by the troubled housing market."
Statewide tax cap efforts will exacerbate financial problems in completing the Miami projects without depleting county and city revenues needed for basics.
And if commissioners need one more reason to reexamine this massive global spending, they could look at national economic jitters that make financing major projects far harder. Should we expect projects in Miami-Dade to somehow be exempt from the world's financial shakes?
Some commissioners say the global agreement would put many construction projects in motion, pumping jobs and salaries into our economy. This is true — in the long run. In several years, lots of projects would be in the works.
Unfortunately, the need for jobs — as testimony at the federal level last week demonstrated — is now. Starting construction in several years might add jobs well into a recovery, when the need was less and costs would be even greater than today.
If commissioners want to increase public works jobs now, they can break apart the global agreement to examine it piece by piece at leisure while using available funds today to maintain the infrastructure we already have. Keeping roadways and sidewalks and current buildings sound protects our investments, enhances the lives of all of our residents and — vitally — can begin immediately.
And, that work can start without fear that we are building something we cannot sustain in the long run or that was never a sound public investment in the first place.
If we have money and we want jobs, start upgrading current assets today. As for the global agreement, the whole may be far less worthy than the sum of its parts.