Most general obligation bond projects running on time as county gears up for second issuance; members see results on first tour
By Risa Polansky
As Miami-Dade County gears up to make its second general obligation bond sale, about 94% of the projects from the first $266 million issuance are running on time, county officials say.
Since voters in 2004 approved the $2.9 billion Building Better Communities general obligation bond program, the county has finished projects at 240 sites around Miami-Dade, completed 180 land acquisitions and set in motion work at another 270 sites.
This time last year, more than 13% of bond-backed projects were running behind.
Many of those projects have since been completed, said Jose A. Galan, chief of program legislation in the county's Office of Capital Improvements.
More efficient processes and legislation allowing certain aspects of the approval process to be expedited have also helped keep the program on track.
Officials this month clinched initial permission to sell another $350 million in bonds — when the time is right in the markets, and probably in portions rather than one large issuance — to fund 274 projects.
At this juncture in the process, members of the Citizens' Advisory Committee charged with overseeing the bond program had their first chance to visit a sampling of ongoing and completed bond projects on a county-staffer-led tour last week.
Members say they've attended various kickoffs and groundbreakings but had yet to see an overview of bond-funded projects.
It's one thing for the board to look at numbers and drawings on paper but quite another for them to visit the tangible products, Mr. Galan said.
The county sold its first $266 million in bonds in 2005.
During its first three years, the bond program focused on municipal and non-profit projects, he said, including an affordable housing development in Hialeah, a water park in Miami, a revamped pediatric intensive care unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital, a new Cuban Museum on Coral Way, and improvements to Vizcaya Museum and Gardens and Overtown's Lyric Theater.
The bond program includes $170 million toward housing projects, Mr. Galan said.
The five building, 300-unit rental development in Hialeah marks the first.
The county backed the nearly $30 million project with $5 million in general obligation bond dollars.
"In many cases, GOB [the general obligation bond] was never intended to be the full funding source" of projects, Mr. Galan said. Rather, the money serves as a contribution to support projects backed also by other funding in order to "try to leverage as many dollars as possible."
The City of Hialeah began construction on the Okeechobee Road housing development in 2005 and moved in the last of the residents — mostly low-income elderly — this month.
In the City of Miami, the county bond program backed about $18 million of the $52 million Grapeland Park project in the airport area.
More than 200,000 youngsters and adults have visited the water park since its May opening, city staffers say.
There are 75 ongoing, bond-funded park projects countywide, said Paula Musto, department public affairs chief.
Contractors are finishing up work on Jackson Memorial Hospital's newly expanded and renovated Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, supported by $24 million in general obligation bond dollars.
The unit boasts 30 private rooms that allow parents to stay with their children during hospital visits.
The bond program includes $130 million toward Jackson, Mr. Galan said, pushing forward the county's goal to keep the hospital competitive.
The bond program supports also non-profit endeavors as well as local entities of historic value.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a national historic landmark in Miami, is to see $50 million in bond funds during the next decade to restore buildings and artwork.
A formal construction kickoff ceremony was to have been held this week to commemorate the start of the work.
"We have an enormous amount of work to do here," Vizcaya Executive Director Joel Hoffman told Citizens' Advisory Committee board members on the project tour last week, noting that officials are working also to raise outside funds to support Vizcaya rehabilitation projects.
Also on tap: renovations to buildings on the property across the street where the Miami Science Museum is now housed.
That museum is set to relocate to Bicentennial Park downtown — another bond-backed project — and Vizcaya officials plan to restore a farm village on the land as well as open a visitors' information center.
Upgrades and expansion to the Lyric Theater in Overtown, another historically significant site in Miami, are ongoing. The bond program is to contribute $10 million.
"It's basically going to be a state-of-the-art facility that has a historic value to the community," Mr. Galan said.
A new Cuban Museum is also getting a boost from the bond program: $10 million.
Crews are continuing interior demolition of the former Florida Grand Opera Building on Coral Way.
Officials expect the Cuban Museum to be complete next year.
Throughout Miami-Dade County, the "GOB [general obligation bond program] is everywhere," Mr. Galan said.
The upcoming $350 million second phase of the program is to largely continue ongoing projects, he said — about 70%, as planned.
The idea is to take projects from the land-acquisition or design phase to the construction phase.
Down the line, general obligation bond proceeds are also set to back in part a new Marlins ballpark, Port of Miami Tunnel and new art and science museums downtown.
The Citizens' Advisory Committee is to oversee the program as it continues.
But so far so good, members said after last week's tour.
"It's impressive," Vice Chair Barbara Bisno said. "You don't get the feel for how impressive it is and how much it's helping in the county just by looking at the numbers."
She added later that "It's a good governmental program. It's doing what it said it was going to do."
Agreed committee member Juan Sanchez: "Money well spent."
Chair Robin Reiter-Faragalli, who did not attend the tour, said in an interview that so long as the process continues as it has, "the voters should get exactly what they were promised."
She acknowledged that instability in the bond markets could affect the program moving forward, potentially requiring it to be extended to allow the county to secure favorable interest rates, but noted also that the pendulum in the future could swing back and allow officials to make up for lost time.
But for now, she said, "I think it's too early to say."