If Miami Can Turn Lemons Into Lemonade County Should Too
Written by Michael Lewis on November 8, 2012
By Michael Lewis
It’s such a pleasant surprise when the City of Miami, often criticized for management gaffes, pulls off a coup of good governance.
It seems to have done so in dealing with the long-glaring pitfall of excavated construction sites, abandoned as unsightly holes when boom-time building plans turned to dust and debris.
After years of ineffectual calls to get holes filled and debris removed, the city commission this year ordered owners to act or have the city do it for them, at far higher cost.
Then city officials actually followed through, citing property owners.
Surprise: four pits were filled in — but only after site owners paid the city for permits to do the job. Moreover, one property owner paid about $85,000 to renew a building permit and restart work now that the building bust has again turned toward boom.
In one coordinated effort, the city avoided spending taxes to clean up messes, put the pressure on and improved neighborhood environments while collecting money rather than spending it — and even greased the wheels to build a new project that will contribute more tax revenue.
Talk about making lemonade out of lemons! The city made a profit out of lingering problems.
That success contrasts markedly with well-publicized city failures — think deals with Jungle Island and with a mega-yacht marina and hotel complex planned on Watson Island that has had no work done after more than 11 years.
One explanation for success may be this: instead of handing its property to businesses in misguided bids to reap revenue, the city merely enforced ordinances and took in revenue while actually improving neighborhoods.
This Miami success, which Miami Today’s Meisha Perrin reported last week, also contrasts sharply with another report several pages away on the inability of Miami-Dade County to make a penny’s worth of progress in its own attempt to rectify a problem.
In a deal that cost taxpayers nearly $3 billion for a Miami Marlins stadium, the Marlins ran construction and counted all they spent in so-called soft costs as a team capital cost of work. The total the Marlins report reduces a puny rent that starts at $2.3 million a year, less than one-tenth of one percent of the ballpark’s true cost.
The team charged $19 million in architects’ fees, more than $2 million to lawyers in drawing stadium contracts with government and other legal fees, nearly $3 million on a consultant to team owners, and far more.
Nine months ago the county began routinely auditing the expense list and disputed 692 Marlins items totaling $1.68 million.
After months of meeting with the Marlins, the dispute goes on and $1.68 million sits in limbo. While the City of Miami is collecting from property owners for cleaning up their messes, the mess with Marlins spending remains a blot of government waste.
The auditors said 439 items the Marlins claimed as its capital costs to build the ballpark weren’t capital at all. They included $26,870 for janitorial services at a team sales office that isn’t even in Marlins Park, cable TV bills for that office, $10,000 in office supplies and thousands to print sales brochures.
Other so-called capital costs were seven flight upgrades for consultants to team owners, $5,000 monthly auto and accommodation allowances for those consultants and $78,000 for their office payroll.
The Marlins event tried to slip in $11,000 for alcohol and $47 for bank deposit slips.
But, as Lou Ortiz reported last week, talks go on. The Marlins won’t back down, and the county hasn’t taken the next step: arbitration.
Miami took a firm stand, with teeth in it, to square away problems and put money in city coffers.
The county should heed the lesson and do the same with the Marlins, who got billions from taxpayers yet are trying to slip 692 questionable items into their minimal share of ballpark cost.