Unsolicited county proposals: act in haste, repent at leisure
Tinkering with rules on private proposals for public projects is heading the wrong direction, one that would limit careful review before signing on with taxpayers’ money and resources.
Changes advanced by Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz could be costly. A county committee has just sent his legislation – without recommendation for or against – to the full commission for a final vote.
He would cut time the mayor has to review an unsolicited offer of a deal with the county by 30 days, down from 90 days to 60, handicapping her use of expert study of an often-complex technical proposal put together without county knowledge and then handed to the mayor under tight rules for how she must deal with it.
A false step in a deal involving money, land, infrastructure or buildings could be a disaster. Yet legislation would cut time for expert aid before moving ahead.
Three weeks ago, Miami Today recommended just the opposite – get more expert help in evaluating unsolicited proposals. The new legislation would choke off outside thought.
Remember, such proposals – whether for transit or takeover of causeways or management of facilities or whatever – come out of the blue sky. The county had not requested or in many cases even thought about these big-ticket items.
Being unsolicited and unexpected should not prejudice a proposal. But because they are often new concepts that could run to billions of dollars these offerings require every possible bit of expertise. Mr. Diaz’s proposal would limit study time. The commission should expand rather than squeeze it.
In an equity impact statement on the chairman’s proposal, Edward Marquez, chief county financial officer, cited indirect social impacts and pointed to the time crunch from the present 90 days down to 60.
“The shortened period provides less time to explore the impact and value of the proposed project,” he wrote. “Many unsolicited proposals are complex and require significant vetting, engagement with the proposer, research into the proposal, alternatives to the proposal, consultation with industry experts and financial advisors prior to providing a recommendation on whether to proceed or reject such offers. Insufficient time for proper evaluation of the public benefit of unsolicited proposals may lead to unintended increased cost to the public or loss of control of public assets.”
Mr. Marquez is on the mark. Proposals always look good and purport to offer benefits. Without time and digging, the county will never see any pitfalls and be able to judge whether projects are worth taking the risks anyway.
Another vital reason to give the mayor careful evaluation time is that during that study the proposer by law must pay for county evaluation and experts. Every proposal comes with a $25,000 check to do this.
Unfortunately, $25,000 is too little to dive deeply into massive proposals on a topic the county never studied, precisely because it did not expect a surprise offer, such as a proposed multi-mode transportation link from downtown Miami to Miami Beach or turning Rickenbacker Causeway into a bicycle-first road controlled by an outside proposer.
Under current law, the mayor can ask the proposer for money needed above the $25,000 so the county can get expert aid. Even knowing what to ask requires technical expertise. If the proposer doesn’t pay up, the county drops the proposal.
But law gives a proposer 30 days to act on a mayor’s cash call. It’s easy to see the county taking two weeks, find it needs more money, asking for it, getting it 30 days later, and having only days left to probe the project. Even the present 90 days is tight. Expand the legislation past 120 days or else real studies must come after the county has already agreed willy-nilly to move ahead.
At that point, it becomes not the proposer but the county that pays for experts The county just debated a $2.5 million fund for studies at that later phase rather than doing them earlier, at proposers’ cost.
Issues early on are significant. Beyond vital technical questions, the mayor must weigh whether a proposal would benefit the county, whether it has a higher priority than other uses for which money and physical resources may be reserved, whether timing is right, and whether the proposal is the best solution to a problem or issue.
The mayor’s team also should assess whether the county could get competitive offers if it does go ahead – remember, an offering may taken a year, and competitors would have just months to match it knowing that the unsolicited offer gets the inside track.
With all these vital questions, legislation to shorten the mayor’s leash is a recipe for disaster. Better to amend Mr. Diaz’s legislation to give the mayor 120 to 150 days, knowing that final action is always in the commission’s hands anyway.
Proposers are far ahead of government in these unsolicited offerings. It’s fine to seek win-win deals. Just give the mayor every opportunity to see if there really is a win for the county before forcing her to move ahead.