It's time for Miami's assets to sail away from commissioners
By Michael Lewis
What are a boat owner's two best days? The day you buy a boat and the day you sell it. In between lurk costly upkeep and headaches.
Miami faces the same paradox in a cycle that repeats over and over: The city buys, builds or is given a public site, then scrambles for cash to keep it running and finally dumps the asset to save money.
Miami is great at acquisitions. The Gusman Theater was a gift. Corporate executives funded the Japanese Garden (yes, the city has one). A private owner built our baseball stadium (no, not today's, but the iconic Miami Stadium that the city tore down years ago). The city bought a school system building to create a film studio.
Once Miami gains assets, however, it discovers that it can't pay to keep them open. Many rot. Some are razed, given away or sold for pennies on the dollar.
While the assets decay, however, they become commissioners' toys. Last week, for example, they were to decide the fate of both the Olympia Building, home of the Gusman, and the operator of the James L. Knight Center concert hall. Both had been on the agenda for months.
But commissioners again waffled. One pulled one site back for private study. Another held onto the other for her own study. No matter how pressing the matter, why let other kids play with our private toys?
Both issues have long simmered, but nobody faces them — the case with many city assets.
Mayor Tomás Regalado ran for office on a pledge to save rotting Miami Marine Stadium. It rots on.
Commissioners this summer weighed 30-year leases for waterfront eateries and a marina. They got proposals. Yet they ducked, leaving the sites with prior operators, including one who hasn't paid property taxes for more than 30 years.
In 2001 the city leased part of Watson Island for hotels, a mega-marina and more. No dirt has flown, but the city is content for minimal rent to leave its finest land fallow.
Nearby, Jungle Island owes the city millions, but Miami got paid something this year so it's letting the owners stay in a failing situation until they return to seek more free land and more non-payment.
Japanese Garden next door, which Jungle Island wants the city to evict for its own expansion, gets zero city attention.
City-built garages at Marlins Park that opened in April were to earn part of their cost by leasing more than 53,000 square feet of stores. But the area commissioner blocked suitable bids and awaits something that would forever alter Little Havana. No retail yet operates, with the baseball season almost over.
Despite a commission push to lure producers of Burn Notice, the city film studio is an unfinished, unfunded dream. Burn Notice chose to stay in Coconut Grove Exhibition Center, which the city has let crumble and plans to raze.
The neglect has been evident for decades.
The city built Miami Arena, then sold it for less than half of what remained due on arena bonds and watched the buyer tear it down.
Miami let the Orange Bowl decay after spending millions in patch-ups, then razed it — clearing the way for the team-run Marlins Park now there. The city got nothing.
Even farther back, Miami gave its airport and seaport to the county rather than operate them.
These problems reflect officials who manage assets poorly and don't maintain them for several reasons.
First, commissioners play with buildings and attractions as political footballs, kicking around private toys.
Second, Miami seldom has a staff competent to keep all the footballs in the air. They have too much to look after and too little time or money. Right now, they don't even have top-level financial officers to inflate the footballs.
The same is true of commissioners. Last week their agenda was packed, so they skipped a key item for the second or third time: the city's badly deteriorated financial situation.
If commissioners don't have time to talk about the money, they have way too much to handle.
Next, a more pressing use for funds than protecting what we have always arises. Cash calls seem to far outweigh mere long-term assets.
Finally, commissioners have balkanized Miami. Each claims hegemony over a district and tells the others "keep out." But each and every city building falls into someone's district. The result is that four of five commissioners wash their hands of every such decision. Nobody is in change.
To solve this dilemma, we could to place city assets in an independent trust. Income from the sites would fund their upkeep. An assessment would jumpstart the cycle until the property income accumulates.
To build public faith, the trust would be placed beyond the reach of commissioners, people now too busy to even discuss finances in time of crisis.
Commissioners argue that we elected them to make such decisions, but that's nonsense. They don't make the decisions now, so why should they in the future? The world's best commission couldn't do it well.
Setting a trust apart from the mayor and commission requires a city charter amendment initiated by taxpayers sick and tired of seeing municipal buildings and assets dissipated.
Who will have the public spirit to weigh anchor and get the boatload of toys away from city hall's dock?
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