Cultural Question 8 should have been Questions 8 and 9
By Michael Lewis
When the county commission voted to seek a massive bond issue, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas rightly threatened a veto unless museums in Bicentennial Park were a separate ballot line.
He contended that $552.7 million being offered Nov. 2 as a 60-item cultural package should be split since half the money would be for the park museums.
The mayor, as usual, did nothing. But despite lack of follow-through, he was right. The $275 million for Museum Park is almost one-10th of the whole spending plan for a half-century, yet it's buried among nearly five dozen other items in one of eight bonding packages.
The Museum Park slice of the $2.925 billion bond issue is itself more than the $171 million for all emergency and health care, which is Question 5. It's more than the $255 million for all public services outreach, Question 6. It's more than the $194 million for all housing for the elderly and families, Question 7.
The biggest single beneficiary of the bonding is lumped in with 58 smaller projects, whose constituencies thus are touting Museum Park, too.
Question 8, the cultural package, stands alone among the eight questions for other reasons. It's the only one boasting strong constituencies of well-heeled residents, the only one to send vast sums to non-government groups and the only one where influential citizens will dole out the funds.
Maybe that's why virtually every person that has exhorted this newspaper for bond support is a Question 8 beneficiary. None seeks personal gain. But this is where the influential would spend and use our money - not to keep, not to line their pockets with, just to play with.
The flip side is that once money gets past the county commission and any strings it may attach, private boards will allocate it - just what we sought with a transportation sales tax that the commission hijacked from a trust that was to oversee spending.
Thus, cultural bonding might approach one requirement by the people, who are split over support of the effort but agree that the key barrier to passage is anticipated commission waste and deviation from plan, not taxpayer reluctance to finance community amenities.
There's one more way Question 8 differs from the other seven, which each county resident should find beneficial (see the past two weeks' columns at www.miamitodaynews.com).
That difference: It was on Question 8 that lobbying focused after county officials carefully sifted $7 billion in wish lists based on community meetings, talks with city officials and county needs. The commission then stuffed seven more projects totaling $60 million into the arts and culture package.
Among last-minute entries were two museums and five more performing-arts venues, putting eight performance centers into the package - and no, they don't include the half-billion-dollar money pit under construction on Biscayne Boulevard.
Added at the last minute were $10 million each for performing-arts venues in Overtown, far South Dade and Hialeah; $5 million for a center to be created in Liberty City; and $5 million for the opera - which is to use the main Performing Arts Center but is also building a 485-seat theater of its own next door.
The added museums were Florida International University's Wolfsonian and a proposed Cuban Museum, at $10 million each.
Unlike that for the other seven questions, most Question 8 funding is not destined for county facilities. This package is built for every non-profit group that needs infrastructure. If they didn't have a need, they found one.
It's not that these projects are total boondoggles. It's not that the money will be mismanaged - though it would pass through commission hands, with the potential to attach unusual strings.
Some money even would go to county facilities that are run by volunteer boards. Take the $50 million to fix up county-owned Vizcaya, restore its nine outbuildings and take over and fix up the old science museum building when it moves to Bicentennial Park.
Other targets include about 8% of the total for libraries, which have independent funds and aren't hurting; $4.7 million to fix the Hampton House, a gathering place for the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s; $4 million to construct a studio theater at Tamiami Park; $8 million for improvements at Miami-Dade County Auditorium; $10 million to set up an historic preservation fund; $15 million for improvements at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Park; $15 million to improve the Coconut Grove Playhouse; and $2 million to renovate Miami Beach's former city hall. Since there are 60 projects in all, there are lots more.
But the biggest project in the whole bond plan, for which we'd be paying until after mid-century, is Museum Park.
County officials surprised the Historical Museum of Southern Florida by forcing it into a marriage with the Museum of Science after public outcries that bond proceeds would buy the vacant Freedom Tower at a profit to its wealthy owners and make it the new Historical Museum home.
That plan was scrapped, and the museums were told that the historical group would be grafted onto the science museum in 25,000 square feet of a 250,000-square-foot park museum but would keep its old home, too. The science museum would leave its present home for the park. Total bonding funding for this $267 million museum would be $175 million.
The Miami Art Museum would get the other 150,000-square-foot park museum, with 50,000 square feet of exhibition space - up from the museum's present 15,000 feet in a building it would leave to the library system. It would get $100 million from bonds and promises to privately raise $101 million, including an operating endowment of $60 million, $10 million for startup and expanded operations and $26 million in operating support.
If it gets bond funds, the art museum plans to open in 2013 - but officials say that whether or not they get bond money, the project will go forward.
Each museum would get 4 acres to build on and 4 for an outdoor sculpture park in the 29-acre park - the last major downtown green space along Biscayne Bay.
The art museum is designing its building as phase one, assuming that somewhere down the line, it would add another wing or building.
The Miami City Commission has approved the museums in concept, but no deal has been signed. Indeed, any deal would have to include the county, since it's providing the money. Art museum officials say they have no idea which government would determine final land use or how they would be governed.
Cash for the hundreds of bond-funded projects would flow during a 13-year period. When each would be funded would be up to the county commission.
Questions about Museum Park include use of lots of green space, cost, need, the ability to raise private funding for multiple cultural projects simultaneously and the allocation of community resources - the county listed $7 billion in needed projects, most of which missed the cut.
So not only has most of the support for the bond issue centered on Question 8 - so has the bulk of the criticism.
The last time the county offered voters bonding for the future, back in 1972, voters accepted eight of 10 packages - including the construction of Metrorail, Metromover and Metrozoo, huge additions to Jackson Memorial Hospital and far more. That massive spending for 30 years totaled almost exactly as much as the cultural package voters next week will face as Question 8.
If Question 8 fails at the polls, we can expect various pieces back again, either as future bonding votes or as projects the county commission will be asked to fund. Plans won't die if they fail Tuesday.
If we vote down all eight questions, our total tax bills will fall 1.6% to 1.8%. If we reject only some items, savings will be less. If we pass them all, tax-rate increases are unlikely at first - though we'd gradually pay more and more (see the Oct. 14 column on our Web site for details).
Our votes for this broad array of projects should be based on how well they allocate scarce resources, meet community need and build for the future.
Unfortunately, Question 8 and its mates will probably rise or fall on levels of disgust with elected officials and their tendency to abuse public trust - like shoving Museum Park in with other items rather than letting it stand or fall on its own merits.
The balloting thus would be less a vote for our county's shining future than a referendum on our county's tarnished government.