Miami-Dade County balks at expanding Redevelopment Agency so Miami can pay for port tunnel
By Risa Polansky
To fund its $50 million share of underwater tunnels to the seaport, the City of Miami needs community redevelopment dollars — but Miami-Dade commissioners are hesitating to help make that happen, though they agreed to do so in their so-called "mega-deal" two years ago.
They deferred a vote Tuesday that would have stretched the city's Omni Community Redevelopment Agency's boundaries as planned in the 2007 global agreement, an intricate intergovernmental scheme designed to make possible major projects like a Marlins ballpark, port tunnels and Museum Park.
Part of that pact called for including Miami's Bicentennial Park and Watson Island in the new redevelopment agency bounds so the city could use money generated in the area to revamp the park to make way for museums and to fund its share of the $1 billion-plus tunnel project.
That's still the plan, though Watson Island is suddenly out of the picture.
Officials are proposing including part of the MacArthur Causeway in the expanded redevelopment bounds, but not the island itself.
Redevelopment agencies make money for area improvement projects by capping property values within their bounds and collecting the tax increment generated above the cap as values rise.
It's common practice that the agencies only fund projects within their bounds, which is why the city wanted to include Watson Island: so the tunnel connecting the island to the port would be eligible for redevelopment dollars
But to ease the county's worries that the agency would end up siphoning tax money expected if and when Watson Island gets developed, the city agreed to take the island out of the proposed expanded redevelopment area, said James Villacorta, head of the city's redevelopment agencies, in an interview after Tuesday's commission discussion.
No one addressed in public why the island was suddenly removed from expansion plans, and some commissioners initially were not even aware it was.
City Manager Pete Hernandez explained the city still wants to include at least the portion of the MacArthur up to the planned mouth of the tunnels because "we feel that in an abundance of caution that there should be linkage between the CRA boundaries and the port tunnel project," rather than attempting to use redevelopment money to pay for a tunnel outside of the redevelopment area.
County Manager George Burgess said he had no problem with the plan.
But commissioners balked.
Because some of the taxes generated in the redevelopment area would come from the county, it seems "you're using some of our money to put in $50 million" for the tunnel project, Carlos Gimenez said.
Katy Sorenson said that, while the county approved the tunnel, commissioners never agreed the city should pay its share using money designated to improve a blighted area.
But since 2007 "it was very clear that the city was counting on Omni CRA funds," City Manager Hernandez reminded commissioners.
If that's no longer an option, he said, the city's backup is state revenue-sharing dollars, which are generally used "for our operational yearly budget."
Tapping those funds would put the city in a perilous place financially, he stressed, adding that new Mayor Tomás Regalado agrees, though as a commissioner Mr. Regalado was a staunch tunnel opponent.
Mr. Hernandez said Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff felt the same way and called the men "mature" for putting the city's finances ahead of personal feelings toward the tunnel project.
But some county commissioners voiced concerns about expanding the redevelopment agency with three seats on the city commission and the agency board empty.
The five-member Miami commission also serves as policymaker for the city's redevelopment agencies.
But between a run-off election for one seat and two suddenly vacated last week when commissioners Angel Gonzalez and Michelle Spence-Jones were ousted amid criminal allegations, it's unclear where the new city board might stand on the issues, a few county commissioners said.
Mr. Hernandez angrily replied that he's never known a change in lawmakers to mean a change in legislation approved in the past.
"That would be ludicrous," he said. "That doesn't happen."
Still, after lengthy discussion, county commissioners voted to defer a decision on expanding the Omni agency, with no date set to reconsider the item.