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Front Page » Top Stories » Braman Local Government Officials Playing Shell Game With Taxpayer Money

Braman Local Government Officials Playing Shell Game With Taxpayer Money

Written by on July 17, 2008

By Risa Polansky
Norman Braman says it’s a "shell-game."

Local government officials say they’re working openly and legally.

But no matter what you call the funding plans for Miami-Dade County and Miami’s mega-plan of major public works projects, one fact is indisputable, Braman attorney Robert Martinez said: redevelopment dollars are being used to free up other money to pay for a planned new stadium for the Florida Marlins.

Using graphics, quotes from public meetings and video clips of testimony from county and city officials, Mr. Martinez stressed Mr. Braman’s claim that the governments are playing a "shell game": indirectly paying for the stadium with redevelopment dollars to avoid a public vote.

"What they’re doing here is indirectly using the ad valorem dollars without having a referendum," he said.

County and city officials insist redevelopment dollars are not truly paying for the stadium and say there’s no need for a vote.

The $3 billion so-called "global agreement" calls for upping the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency’s contribution to debt the county owes on the performing arts center from $1.43 million a year to that plus 35% of the agency’s annual revenue.

The plan also names Omni redevelopment dollars — meant for projects designed to relieve area slum and blight — as the funding source for a revamp of Bicentennial Park and, in part, a port tunnel.

The county once used convention and tourist development tax dollars to pay off the bulk of the arts center debts.

Under the global deal, that newly freed money is to pay, in part, for the Marlins stadium.

According to Mr. Martinez, Mr. Burgess pitched the plan to commissioners at a meeting by saying that "baseball cannot happen without this arrangement."

City Manager Pete Hernandez said the same — that, without freeing the convention and tourist development monies, "we will not be able to fund baseball."

In her pre-trial testimony, county finance Director Rachel Baum agreed that upping the redevelopment agency arts center payments does make convention and tourist monies available for other projects, including the baseball stadium.

Said Mr. Martinez, "what you get at the end of the day is one big shell game."

Marlins attorney Sanford Bohrer said Mr. Braman’s team is the one playing games.

"The (shell-game) metaphor doesn’t work here," he said, maintaining that the funding plans have always been public.

He called Mr. Braman’s strategy "smoke and mirrors."

Attorneys for the county and city during their opening statements focused on the legal intricacies of Mr. Braman’s claims, such as whether the redevelopment agency is a taxing body — they say it’s not — and whether the agency’s revenues are truly ad valorem taxes, or, taxes based on the value of real or personal property.

"CRA increment revenue is not an ad valorem tax," said Warren Bittner, deputy city attorney.

A community redevelopment agency generates funds by capping the value of real property within its boundaries. As property values appreciate, the city and county collect only the tax revenues on the capped value, leaving the increment above the cap to fund agency projects rather than feed into city-or county-wide coffers.

Mr. Hope of the county said the Omni increasing its payment to the arts center is "perfectly legal."

And "Convention Development Tax and Tourist Development Tax monies are specifically slated for projects such as constructing a baseball stadium. Perfectly legal."

He did not mention that $88 million of the tourism monies could also be used to market Miami as a visitor destination.

He said also that, in the global agreement, "there’s no pledge of ad valorem taxes to pay a bond," so there’s no need for a referendum.

"Perfectly legal. There’s nothing illegal about that."

Mr. Hope said Mr. Braman is attacking the funding plans to persuade the court to overturn a deal he just doesn’t like.

"They’re using these counts as a vehicle in an attempt to get the court to act as a super-legislator."

The trial is ongoing.