Miami city manager tackling projects under new administration
By Paola Iuspa
From seeking an improved bond rating to recommending a small refund for taxpayers, Miami City Manager Carlos Gimenez said he can move ahead with ongoing projects now that the mayor's race is in the past.
After being retained by new Mayor Manny Diaz and the city now two weeks into his administration, the city's manager of less than two years said there was much work left for him to do.
One of his top priorities, Mr. Gimenez said, is to meet soon with representatives of Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's Rating Services, the two leading Wall Street bond-rating agencies.
The city manager said he thinks the city's sound financial condition merits a rating increase. With that, the city could save money in interest when repaying $255 million in bonds it plans to issue in the next 10 years to upgrade infrastructure.
Moody's has already boosted Miami's bond rating to Baa3, an investment grade, from Ba1, a sub-investment grade. Moody's ranks corporate and municipal bonds from Aaa, the highest, to D, the lowest.
Standard & Poor's continues to place Miami under a sub-investment grade.
Mr. Gimenez said he is also working on a recommendation he will send to Miami commissioners to refund a portion of this year's property taxes now that it appears the city will be able to keep its parking surcharge revenues.
Gov. Jeb Bush still has to sign a bill that would allow the City of Miami to keep funds collected since 1999 through a 20% parking surcharge.
The tax was declared illegal earlier this year by an appellate court but the Florida Legislature approved a bill last month making it constitutional.
The city, which has continued collecting the fee, has been holding $12 million in escrow. If the city is able to recover that $12 million, it would bring the current estimated $9 million surplus to $20 million, he said.
But, Mr. Gimenez said, if the city also gets to keep the disputed parking fees, Miami residents should be reimbursed because the millage rate in the current fiscal year was not reduced.
"For example," he said, he would recommend that an owner of "a home valued at $117,000 minus the $25,000 Homestead Exemption would get about $27 in refunds."
Another project for the near future will be to implement a more effective waste-collection system. A $5 million trial effort, already approved by commissioners, will put automated trucks on the streets and free sanitation workers to clean streets, parking lots and parks.
He said the city could gain $5 million in efficiency through this investment. Initially, the system would serve one-third of the city's residential section, Mr. Gimenez said. If the system works well, it could be expanded to the rest of the city in a year.
A former firefighter and chief, the city manager works from a downtown governmental office surrounded by memorabilia from his 25 years with the City of Miami Fire-Rescue. From his current realm, Mr. Gimenez wants to quickly complete negotiations with the city's four unions for fire, police, sanitation and general employees.
Depending on how many concessions the city makes, Mr. Gimenez said, it could affect the way Miami is viewed by Wall Street and also influence the bond ratings he hopes to have raised.
He said the administration had not been able to reach an agreement with union leaders earlier this year due to a strained financial situation darkened by the inability to use revenues from the disputed parking surcharge.
Also high on his list is giving a face-lift to advertising at bus stops across the city, Mr. Gimenez said. He said a company recently was awarded a contract to replace old, worn-down bus-stop furniture.
Mr. Gimenez said the city commission is also committed to reducing the number of billboards in Miami. He said he is drafting a plan to charge outdoor advertising agencies a fee so that the city would have funds to maintain landscaping around billboards.
A long-term goal, Mr. Gimenez said, is the development of neglected neighborhoods, which requires investment in infrastructure.
Attorney George Knox, whose law firm specializes in economic development, said the city's administration needs to focus on the many areas hungry for development and thirsty for employers.
"There is a great potential for more to happen along the Miami River, Little Haiti and Miami Design District," he said.
Mr. Knox said developers started focusing on urban-based projects during the past two years when a Miami-Dade Empowerment Zone Trust, which grants tax incentives, was created and when the dredging of the Miami River was approved.
James Rivers, director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University, a think-tank on urban development, said the city has hired the center to come up with a proposal to redevelop neighborhoods along the Florida East Coast Railroad Corridor from Northwest 14th to 79th streets. Plans call for the city to build housing and attract businesses to the area.
Mr. Rivers, who said he has lived in Miami for 25 years, said this was the first time the city had taken a comprehensive planning approach.
Although the effort to create a master plan for that portion of the city was spearheaded by Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton, Mr. Rivers said, Mr. Gimenez seemed to have a good grasp on redevelopment of neighborhoods, housing and parks.
"He seems to have the same interests that we have," Mr. Rivers said.
Carlos Leonard, vice president for business development for the Beacon Council, said the best thing the city can do to attract corporations is to stay away from financial troubles. The council is Miami-Dade's economic development agency.
"Businesses were not interested in relocating to Miami five years ago," as it weathered a financial crisis, he said.
Companies willing to make large investments in a community need to trust the government and be assured that promises of upgraded infrastructure and tax abatements will be kept. But Mr. Leonard also said Miami needs to invest millions in infrastructure in order to compete against the newly developed Airport West area when trying to recruit companies.