Miami-Dade County to sell bonds, but amount and uses still mysteries
By Risa Polansky
A general obligation bond sale is coming up in Miami-Dade this calendar year. But it's unclear when. And how much. And which of the hundreds of voter-approved projects will be funded.
"The [projects] list is still being vetted. It's being reviewed and we are working hard to present a list to our board [of commissioners] in a matter of weeks," said George Navarrete, head of the county's Office of Capital Improvements.
Miami-Dade voters in 2004 approved the $2.9 billion Building Better Communities bond program, conceived as a 15-year, cash-flow managed initiative to fund more than 300 projects countywide, from infrastructure improvements to new cultural facilities.
But the economic crash and resulting county budget crunch have been squeezing the program, leaving officials to figure out which projects can be done when.
They've said all will be built, but schedules could be stretched and the order rearranged.
Ongoing as the next bond sale approaches and officials review project plans: crunching numbers to decide how much debt to issue.
Depressed property values revealed this month by the county's appraiser make a difference.
Miami-Dade had been projecting a 12% hit to its tax roll. But it shrank by 13.4%, the appraiser's preliminary estimates show.
"At any given debt service millage that has an impact, so it makes us go back and sharpen our pencils," said Charles Parkinson Jr., capital budget coordinator in the county's Office of Strategic Business Management.
That millage rate is another question mark now.
It's up to commissioners to set it.
Last year, lawmakers voted on a debt service tax rate ceiling of 38 cents per $1,000 assessed value, just below Mayor Carlos Alvarez's recommended 39 cents, leaving less money than expected to pay back bonds.
That, combined with the county's still-shrinking tax roll, has meant a crunch in the bond program, which was planned based on tax roll growth and millage projections that have since been rocked by the recession.
Now, as budget officials work to decide how much debt to issue the next go-round, they're also looking to the future, running projections and "being conservative," Mr. Parkinson said.
There is a running list of projects set to be funded through the next issuance, though it has changed and will change before commissioners vote, Mr. Navarrete said.
Two of the most highly anticipated bond-backed projects are new Miami Art and Miami Science museums planned for Bicentennial Park downtown.
The museums over time are now slated to get a combined $275 million in general obligation bond funds.
The draft project list, dated April 28 and reviewed by the bond program's advisory committee May 3, allots $7.1 million to the Miami Science Museum from series 2009-2010 bonds.
"Funding completes the design phase," the draft list says, noting that "funding allocation can be adjusted pending the progress of the project."
The money would come on top of the nearly $12.6 million-plus allocated from the series 2008-2009 bonds.
As for the Miami Art Museum, the draft list shows no money allocated from series 2009-2010 bonds or 2010-2011 bonds and says the $19.3 million allocated in the series 2008-2009 issuance "completes the design phase" of the project.
But a month after the draft list was printed, County Manager George Burgess in a May 28 letter to art museum Chair Aaron Podhurst said he "intend[s] to recommend funding for the balance of the Miami Art Museum project as part of the next three scheduled BBC [Building Better Communities] bond sales."
The outcome remains to be seen.
Also up in the air: whether HistoryMiami, which has decided not to set up shop in the new science museum building as planned and hopes instead expand into the art museum's old space on West Flagler Street, gets to keep the $10 million portion of the science museum funding it had been allocated.
The draft list suggests the money will move with the museum pending commission approval. It allots $650,000 from the 2009-2010 bonds and the remaining $9.35 million the next year as "placeholder" funding pending a vote.
Should the money go to the history museum, the science museum would need to fill the gap, probably through whatever new partner fills the space once meant for HistoryMiami.
As far as the bond program, the next step is to bring a resolution outlining projects to commissioners, Mr. Parkinson said, and "quite frankly, we're still working on it."