September 15, 2018 | Miami Herald
By Kyra Gurney
Miami Beach voters face some big questions about the city’s future on the November ballot.
Residents will be asked to authorize $439 million in general obligation bonds to fund public safety, infrastructure and parks projects, approve a plan to build an 800-room convention center hotel, and create an inspector general’s office to act as a watchdog for city hall.
Early voting begins Oct. 22 and runs through Nov. 4. The election will be held on Nov. 6. Here’s what you need to know about the six ballot questions in Miami Beach:
General obligation bonds
Miami Beach wants to upgrade aging infrastructure, improve public parks and invest millions to prepare for sea level rise, but the city doesn’t have enough money to cover all of the costs. That’s why city officials are asking voters for permission to issue $439 million in general obligation bonds to fund projects that are grouped into three separate items on the ballot. The bonds would fund $169 million for parks and beaches, $198 million for infrastructure and $72 million for public safety improvements.
The highlights in the parks and recreation category include a $53.8 million park, library and aquatic center in North Beach, a new $15.7 million park at the site of the former Par 3 Golf Course in Mid-Beach, and $15 million to complete a pedestrian path that runs along Biscayne Bay. In the neighborhoods and infrastructure category, the city wants to finance stormwater and flooding mitigation projects, repair sidewalks, repave roads and create new protected bicycle lanes, among other projects. The public safety investments would include replacing two fire stations, buying more license plate readers and security cameras, and creating a new public safety radio system. A complete list of projects can be found at www.gomb2018.com.
If voters authorize the general obligation bonds, the city would pay back the debt over 30 years through the money it collects from property taxes. That means residents would see a tax hike. The city would likely issue the bonds over 10 years, so the increase would be gradual. After all of the bonds have been issued, residents could expect to pay an extra $82 per $100,000 in taxable property value.
Property tax rates in Miami Beach are currently the lowest they’ve been in at least 50 years, according to the city’s finance department, and the city has a good credit rating, which means it will pay less in interest than cities with weaker ratings. These are both factors city officials say will minimize the bonds’ financial impact on residents.
At a MidBeach Neighborhood Association meeting in September, Commissioner Mark Samuelian said the city needs the bonds because it has “a lot of pent-up needs.”
“While we have had sufficient funding to operate the basics of the city, for these type of projects, capital projects, park projects, public safety projects, beachwalk projects, we have not sufficiently funded them,” Samuelian said. “At the end of the day, this is about an investment in the community.”
But not everyone is enthusiastic about the proposal. Some residents have questioned whether Miami Beach is moving too quickly and whether all of the projects have been thoroughly vetted.
“I’m not saying we should not invest in our city and I’m not saying that there aren’t portions of this proposal that in general should be moved forward on,” said Wayne Roberts, a local businessman who spoke to a South Beach neighborhood group in September about his concerns. “What I’m saying is that there wasn’t enough preparation, there wasn’t enough planning, there wasn’t enough details,” he added.
City officials have argued that all of the projects were vetted by city staff and an advisory panel composed of residents representing various sectors. The city also got input from residents at a series of meetings before the list of projects was finalized by the City Commission. Samuelian described the process as “very in-depth.”
If voters authorize the bonds, the city plans to create a resident oversight committee and post project updates online so that citizens can monitor the program’s progress. Each of the three bond categories needs a majority vote to pass.
Convention center hotel
Miami Beach is asking residents to approve the construction of a convention center headquarter hotel on a plot of city-owned land in South Beach. The hotel would be privately funded, but the city needs approval from 60 percent of voters in order to lease public land in the convention center district.
The proposal features a 185-foot tall, 800-room hotel with two wings stretching behind a 53-foot podium containing parking, meeting spaces and ballrooms. The hotel would be connected to the convention center via a pedestrian bridge. More information about the proposed design can be found at miamibeachconnect.com.
City officials have long argued that Miami Beach needs a convention center hotel in order to compete with other convention destinations. The Miami Beach Convention Center has just undergone a $600 million renovation, but has lost at least $130 million in bookings since 2015 because it lacks a headquarter hotel, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Proponents of the hotel argue that the economic benefits would extend far beyond attracting conferences to the island. If voters approve the proposal, the city estimates that it will collect $96 million in taxes from the hotel over 30 years. The hotel will also pay Miami Beach either fixed rent totaling $16.6 million over the first 10 years or a percentage of hotel revenue, whichever is greater, according to the terms of a lease agreement approved by the City Commission.
Previous attempts to find a design for a hotel that residents will support have failed over concerns about the traffic impacts and the size of the building. The group behind the latest convention center hotel plan — Turnberry’s Jackie Soffer, Terra Group’s David Martin, Miami Design District developer Craig Robins and architecture firm Arquitectonica — hopes its design will address residents’ concerns. The proposed hotel is 100 feet shorter than the previous plan and includes six times more space for cars to queue on the property without spilling onto the street.
On the ballot, voters will be asked to authorize the lease of city land — a parking lot adjacent to the convention center — and the construction of an 800-room hotel with a maximum height of 185 feet. The specifics of the hotel design will be evaluated by the city’s Design Review Board at a later date.
Another ballot item will ask voters whether the guaranteed hotel rent payments should be earmarked for traffic reduction measures, stormwater projects and education initiatives. Otherwise, the money would go into the city’s general fund where it could be used for a broader range of expenses.
Inspector general’s office
Miami Beach is also asking voters to create an inspector general who would serve as a watchdog for city hall and work to make the government more efficient.
The inspector general’s office would operate independently and scrutinize city spending and programs, including projects financed by the general obligation bonds, if they’re approved by voters. The inspector general would have the ability to perform investigations and subpoena witnesses.
The new office could cost the city as much as $1.1 million a year, depending on the number of staff, but Miami Beach may add a surcharge to city contracts to help cover the costs. The city is also looking at whether the inspector general’s office could be combined with the city’s existing internal audit department to reduce personnel costs.