New Miami-Dade courthouse is back on the drawing board

New Miami-Dade courthouse is back on the drawing board
  • Sumo

The construction of a new Miami-Dade civil courthouse — such an “emergency”courthouse in 2014, that leaders, lawyers and lobbyists rushed a ballot question for a courthouse tax that was soundly defeated at the polls (64%-36%) — is back on the horizon.

More than two years later, county commissioners Thursday again looked to address the deterioration of the historic downtown building, known as Cielito Lindo, and the construction of a replacement courthouse. The Chairman’s policy council discussed different potential funding sources and heard from Chief Civil Court Judge Bertila Soto, who has been the lead proponent of a 600-square-foot facility with 60 courtrooms.

There have been two task forces studying the building at 73 West Flagler and the county has spent about $39 million on repairs so far, including $25 million on the facade. But Soto said that there are still $73 million in unfunded repairs that are needed. Where do they get these numbers?

Read related story: Commission approves courthouse fixes, P3 task force

“Our needs at the courthouse are well established,” Soto told the eight-member board, reminding them of not one, but two task force reports on the conditions with recommendations for its fix. “The courthouse needs to be replaced. The building needs to be 600 square feet.”

Commissioner Rebeca Sosa asked if it wouldn’t be better to have satellite courtrooms across the county to cut down on transit and make it more accessible to the users, the constituency. But Soto said that both task forces had come to the same conclusion that one building was a better option. She explained that having satellite courts for criminal and Judge Bertila Sototraffic cases worked because it was just the affected party accessing the court. 

“But when you are talking about civil court, the plaintiff might be from Homestead and the respondent from North Miami,” Soto said. “We try misdemeanors and some cases locally, but for circuit, civil and probate cases, it’s different.”

But, she added, they have looked at satellite courthouses that have some space — like the one in South Dade — and they could be used more with the right technology for the meetings that lead up to trials.

What’s at stake, she added, is the health of the more than one million people who go through the doors of the Flagler building every year. “We have judges with upper respiratory conditions. People with eye conditions.”

Read related story: Courthouse tax debate — scare tactics vs. common sense

Really? Then why on Earth hasn’t this been addressed in the two years since a tax to pay for it was shot down by voters? It was an “emergency” two years ago — remember the ominous ads and the talk about mold and unhealthy conditions? — and people are still getting sick? Oh, yeah, guess there was a mayoral election in the way. Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo said at the beginning of the meeting that he doesn’t want to kick the can down the line. But where has he been for the past two years while judges develop respiratory conditions?

“We don’t care who builds this building. We don’t care how it’s built,” Soto said. But Ladra is a bit concerned that our chief judge would be so flippant about such a major capital improvement project and the opportunity that exists for graft. courthouseWhat if the mayor’s son’s construction firm gets to build it? She certainly should care, shouldn’t she?

Tara Smith of the county’s Internal Services department (read: procurement) said staff had identified 11 downtown sites — county-owned and underutilized assets — where, plausibly, a courthouse could be built. She said these are sites where the county is actively considering “for potential development” of the courthouse.

Really?

Toppping the list is the current location, though Ladra doubts they would be able to tear down the historic 1928 structure. Besides, selling the building is also being considered as a potential funding source for the new courthouse (couldn’t we enter into a development agreement instead and still own it?). Deputy Mayor Ed Marquez said there has been some  interest in “converting the old courthouse into a boutique hotel.”

Other sites identified include the cultural center where the Main Library and our historical museum are located, the downtown motor pool and lot, and the little plaza/park with public art just north and west of County Hall. All three of those were vetoed by commissioners.

“Green space right now is prime in downtown,” said Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. “For me, that’s sacred.”

And Audrey Edmonson said the one lot in Overtown near the historic Lyric Theater was off limits, too.

“We have plans for that. Take that one off,” she said.

Read related story: Courthouse clean bill of health begs questions, investigation

Later in the day, several County Hall insiders said that there are issues to take off most if not all the sites identified. One source said the list was “laughable.” But the property that is adjacent to the new juvenile courthouse and contiguous to the FEC line, which is apparently Commissioner Sally Heyman‘s favorite spot.

Several commissioners also wondered if this would be a good project for a public-private partnership (duh) and if they should put out feelers to private land owners in the downtown core. Commissioner Dennis Moss , who said he had also talked to the boutique hotel people, said this was a “tremendous opportunity” to use some of those county assets, perhaps along with private parcels, to “really create a new direction for the downtown area.

“If we do this right we have a chance to create something really special,” he said.

Edmonson thought that perhaps getting a footprint with both public and private land could work. Smith told the council that she would come back in 90 days with a cost analysis of using the identified properties for the courthouse and going with a P3 process or a traditional build/design bid.

“There are a lot of rumors out there aboutbarreiro interests in the private sector,” Barreiro said. “Before we go into one of our own public assets and spend money on a study, let’s see if a private entity comes forward.”

Heyman said that there was interest from private property owners and they would be reached out to.

Smith said the county assets were identified first because there has been no funding identified for the project. “But that doesn’t exclude private properties.” 

Commissioners decided to seek some input from the Downtown Development Authority at its next meeting.

“At least we were able to at least set the table on this,” Bovo said.

But nobody ever talked about the dinner bill, or funding for construction of any new courthouse. Obviously, going to the taxpayers again is not a good idea and, luckily, Bovo realized that. 

Read related story: Top 5 reasons to vote no on courthouse bond tax

“The voters already opined on the issue,” he said. “I’m hoping that we guide ourselves in a way that does not rely on a bond issue. I think that would probably be dead on arrival.”

Heyman also said they were not considering asking voters to approve another general obligation bond.

Government affairs consultant and lobbyist Al Maloof told thecourthouse council that his office was involved with a bill filed in Tallahassee this week that would provide a funding mechanism for coutrhouses, libraries, schools, jails and prisons. It is likely a companion bill to federal legislation known as the Public Buildings Renewal Act that allow state and local governments to establish P3s for infrastructure improvements through the creation of at least $5 billion in new private activity bonds for public buildings.

Isn’t that still public money?

Because you know it’s going to be expensive. What was going to cost $390 million in 2014 is going to be more than $450 million when all is said and done. Mark my words. 

Commissioner Jean Monestime wants it to be an inviting space that becomes a city center for a downtown with a growing residential community. A plae for people to meet and have a conversation.

“Our County Hall is not inviting. Our cultural center is not inviting,” Monestime said. “People come here because they have to, not because they want to. Nobody says, ‘Let’s go for a walk to the square.'”

So, we’re talking about a public square, too?

Ka-ching.

“It ought to be spectacular,” said Commissioner Javier Souto. “Showing to the world what Miami-Dade County is.”

Ka-ching.

“All around for acres and acres, it should be spectacular.”

Ka-ching, ka-ching.

6 Responses to "New Miami-Dade courthouse is back on the drawing board"

  1. Ricardo "Ricky" J. Rodriguez Vacas, Esq.   February 10, 2017 at 9:05 am

    Que nice…love how elected officials from all branches seem to think money rains from our Miami sub-tropical sky. The judiciary and courts administration need to modernize a bit and become more flexible. Often times, society ignores this branch of government but rest assured ahí también hay burocracia, gasto, y desperdicio. With technology much can be done. Also, the branch courts are great and the option of expanding the cases they cover would be great-some have had case options reduced. Use of other county buildings would be smart. How many of us have walked the Stephen P. Clark building and other county structures and wondered, “wow.”Not because of their wonder, but at the amount of waste there. I am confident several floors of the Stephen P. Clark building can be used for the desire of those who want new space. The best part of that would be that it is already next to the courts and metro. Finalmente, ya sabemos what is the future of “cielito lindo” if it is sold…it will go to Miami history heaven and rest in peace with The Royal Palm, Jimbo’s, the Orange Bowl, el Drive-In Theatre de la Bird Road, y todos los otros that have fallen before us. Dale, Viva Miami Libre. – Un abogado nativo del 305 que quiere ladrar y morder también.

    Reply
  2. An Interested Citizen   February 10, 2017 at 5:26 pm

    Ladra, it is not simply enough to be against the plans on the table. If you think none of them are the answer, please tell us what you think is the answer for the deteriorating courthouse. I also don’t see what you point is about the fact that two years have elapsed since Judge Soto argued there was an emergency. You wonder why nothing has happened? What did you expect to happen? Did you expect the judges to go on strike rather than keep working in that sick building? Do you know that there are in fact judges who have declined to serve in divisions in that building precisely because of concerns about their health? It is unfair to penalize the judges and staff that have soldiered on by making them continue to work in unhealthy conditions simply because they have not (yet) revolted.

    And Mr. Vacas, you should know it is unworkable to disperse the civil division all over the county. First, it will make it impossible for the jury pool to do their job. Second, lawyers often have multiple hearings the same morning before different judges.

    Judge Soto is not being flippant when she says judges don’t care who or how a new courthouse is built. She’s saying judges are not politicians. The politicians represent the public and they should make the political decisions. The judges simply serve the public and don’t want to (and should not) be involved in the political decisions of which entity builds the courthouse.

    By the way, the new courthouse needs to be 600,000 square feet not 600.

    Reply
  3. Ladra   February 10, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    Dear Citizen, I never said I was against any of these plans (not that they had many financing plans on the table). Nor am I against the construction of a big, beautiful, shiny courthouse. I am just against the subterfuge that goes on at County Hall so that all of the mayor’s friends and families can skim off the top. The bigger and shinier it gets, the easier it is to skim off the top.

    And that is exactly what I meant when I said that the judge, our chief civil judge, should CERTAINLY care who builds it and how. She should not just look the other way as the budget for her building, the building she is pushing for, becomes an opportunity slush fund for campaign contributors and those with political palanca. I certainly would hope our judges, especially our chief civil judge, would take a more vigilant stance on the corruption in our beloved Miami-Dade and not just look the other way because she will get a brand new courtroom with a shiny new bathroom in her chambers. “I don’t care who builds it or how” sounds like a blanket invitation for them to dole out political favors.

    I was against the courthouse tax in 2014 because of the way it was presented. That’s not to say that if our government officials were honest with us and presented it in a more thoughtful and explained way, I wouldn’t be for it. But what they tried to do in 2014 was a sham and it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, as well as a little distrust.

    The thing about the emergency is exactly that. It was presented to us as an emergency in 2014, which is why it was rushed on the ballot and why they fueled community fear with ominous commercials that made it seem like the building was going to fall on everybody one day… even though the county itself had been neglecting the problem for years. Then the ballot grab for public cash fails and… nada. Suddenly, the emergency is not such an emergency anymore. For two years it sits on the back burner. Now, only after the mayoral election, is it on the table again. You don’t think the timing is curious?

    We agree that we need a new courthouse. But it shouldn’t be a “political decision.” It should be whatever is right for the community. What we don’t need is our local electeds to lie and exaggerate things to us so that they can come up with more slush funds to feed the cottage industry they have created for their friends and family and campaign contributors.

    Love, Ladra

    Reply
  4. No Fan   February 11, 2017 at 10:03 am

    County workers in less than ideal working conditions? Stop the presses!!!

    It was a public emergency 2 years ago yet life goes on.. the public knows a chicken little when it hears one.

    If it is a public hazard then some smart attorney would have sued under OSHA long ago.

    We should build and speculator courthouse to accommodate attorneys’ busy schedules? note to attorneys.. Less clients=more time.

    The private sector has used teleconferences for decades, why does a judge need a palatial courtroom and chambers? Beside the last election cycle I saw no shortage of failed lawyers running for a judgeship who would be happy to have a office in the old courthouse and a FRS pension in their pocket.

    OK so this answer is a little over the top but no more hyperbole than Soto.

    Reply
  5. No Fan   February 11, 2017 at 10:59 am

    and by the way the part about traffic court is misleading . It’s NOT “just the effected party accessing the system” A traffic case is assigned based on the officer’s district, not the defendant. . if you live in Homestead and are ticketed in Sunny Isle your court date will be the North Dade justice center..and good luck trying to change the venue.

    So much for Soto’s veracity

    .

    Reply
  6. Got-A-Point   February 12, 2017 at 1:52 am

    Judges are indeed politicians in Miami-Dade County. The most corrupt county in the nation. Perhaps if the State Attorney would do her job by going after crooked lobbyists and politicians and freeze their assets obtained with the public’s money they have stolen, there would be enough money to build a courthouse. P3s is another scam to go around the will of the people. To the judges, state attorney’s office, lawyers, and police officers who are part of our corrupted judicial system, may you continue to breath the air borne asbestos in your sick buildings. You deserve it!

    Poetic Justice!!!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*