Miami-Dade County has acted prudently in the face of the economic downturn, Manager George Burgess says
By Risa Polansky
Moving aggressively to build planned capital projects is the prudent response to today's economic woes, Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess says.
"This is the right time to create jobs and try to keep construction activity happening," he said.
In a memo last month, Commissioner Javier Souto accused the county of "being extremely slow to react to the steady downward spiral in our economy."
"But," Mr. Burgess said, "the fact of the matter is the government has actually done a rather, if not extremely, good job of reacting and trying to position itself in this radically changed market and economy."
He pointed to legislation commissioners passed this summer that allows for expediting funded capital projects, a measure designed to provide construction jobs and jumpstart the local economy.
The stimulus plan includes $625 million in capital projects.
"There are issues with a lack of construction activity, lack of jobs in the construction economy," Mr. Burgess said. "So the notion of putting more money into the community in funded capital projects makes enormous sense."
It does, Mr. Souto agreed in an interview this week. But he questioned whether the money will be there to do other planned projects.
"If we had the money and if we had the wherewithal to do all that [create jobs and kick start the economy], it wouldn't be a bad idea," he said. "Now, where is the money going to come from? That's the main thing."
Mr. Burgess said the county is "monitoring" shaky financial markets and plans to issue fixed-rate debt for other projects when conditions stabilize.
"You don't see us going to the market now," he said, anticipating the county could look to sell new bonds beginning in early 2009.
"As we get into next year, we fully expect that there's going to be more liquidity in the market."
The county has also worked to adapt existing investments to the tumultuous market.
"We've done very, very aggressive actions on our investment portfolio so it's very conservative, it's very protected," Mr. Burgess said, adding that, "we have 96% of our bonds in fixed-rate debt."
He expects the county's actions to both protect taxpayer dollars and energize the economy here.
"If we have access to capital, which we fully expect we will through the upcoming months and year, we have the funding sources, we have the authorizations, we have the expedite tools, and we're making investments that will create jobs when they're needed, infuse money into the local economy."
Mr. Souto wrote in his memo that he's concerned also with whether tourism dollars will continue to roll in at normal levels during economically turbulent times.
Convention and tourist development tax revenue is set to back planned projects such as a new Marlins stadium.
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau reports that, through September, the county has collected a record $36.6 million in convention development tax revenue, up 1.8% from the $36 million collected during the same nine months last year.
But there's no telling whether that will continue in this unpredictable economy, Mr. Souto pointed out in his memo.
Both in the document and in an interview, he stressed the importance of keeping the commission updated on economic issues and the state of present and future county projects.
His idea: have the county's Social and Economic Development Council, a group of local economic experts, come before the commission at every meeting to answer questions and offer guidance.
"These are very difficult and dangerous times, and we need the best possible advice directly to us, from the best brains available to us," he said in a written statement after an interview this week.
Mr. Souto said the only response to his October memo he's received is a memo from Mr. Burgess to the county's department directors reminding them that representatives from departments such as planning and zoning, economic development coordination and small business development should attend Social and Economic Development Council meetings.
However, Mr. Souto said, rather than simply encouraging staffers to remain engaged, he would prefer "frank and open back-and-forth with the commissioners."