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  • Writer's pictureFrank Landrian

Spend and Tax Season is Back with a $2.5 BILLION Tax Bond Burden on TAX PAYERS!


More than a third of the projects promised under a 2004-approved county bond program are still not finished 20 years later – a statistic especially relevant now that Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava wants voters to consider a new bond proposal, this one weighing in at $2.5 billion.

Voters approved the Building Better Communities general obligation bond program in 2004, authorizing the county to incur $2.94 billion in debt – roughly $4.8 billion in today’s dollars – for water and sewer improvements, parks, cultural facilities, infrastructure, public safety, health care, public service and affordable housing. Only 197 of the 355 listed projects under that bond package had been completed as of September 2023.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced a $2.5 billion bond proposal at her Jan. 24 State of the County address.

Cause for concern? Not according to former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who spearheaded the bond referendum just before his second term came to a close.

“Much like a mortgage that you take 30 years to pay back, these bond issues sometimes last as long as 40 years,” he explained. “It’s an authorization, and you’re not going to build just for the sake of building. You build projects when they’re ready to be built.”

According to the county’s Office of Management and Budget, residents in Miami-Dade still have about $1.68 billion worth of debt under the Building Better Communities bond program. Taxpayers will be footing that bill until approximately 2051, so, is now the best time for the county to make its way over to Wall Street, wallet in hand?

Alex Penelas, Former Miami-Dade County Mayor

“That’s the million dollar question,” said Penelas.

Actually, it’s the $2.5 billion question.

(Phillip Pessar via Wikimedia Commons)

Pérez Art Museum Miami was a $100 million project under the Building Better Communities bond program.

Levine Cava first floated her “305 Future Ready” bond proposal during the Jan. 24, 2024, State of the County address. She loosely mentioned it would fund projects to improve housing, septic-to-sewer conversions, flooding and parks, but has not offered any specifics.

Her staff declined our interview request on the bond proposal, stating it is still too premature to discuss in detail.

Although the air of uncertainty has facilitated speculation and criticism from elected officials throughout the county – it is campaign season, after all – the truth is that what’s in Levine Cava’s bond proposal still hangs in the balance, and that includes when taxpayers will actually have to start coughing up money.

Part of the challenge that the mayor faces, then, according to Penelas, is to ensure voters that the remaining money in the existing bond will be invested before a new one goes live.

Status Update

(Biscayne Times File Photo)

Merrett Stierheim, Former Miami-Dade County Manager

Of the $2.94 billion approved through the 2004 bond package, $729 million remains uninvested, according to the Office of Management and Budget.  

Although big, one-and-done projects were completed with considerably less delays – think PortMiami Tunnel or Pérez Art Museum Miami – other improvements affecting residents’ day-to-day lives, like water and sewer or parks, tend to stall at the county level.

That isn’t always without rhyme or reason, especially if the project was future-oriented to begin with.

Merrett Stierheim knows a thing or two about what goes on behind the scenes before a government project is completed. He served as Miami-Dade County manager from 1976-1986 and again from 1998-2001, and generally has more than 60 years of public service experience in his back pocket.

A rendering showing the new Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery that, though built, has not yet opened.

“You have to consider that building a museum is a project onto itself, and in many cases may be easier to bid out and complete,” Stierheim said. “Whereas parks and regional facilities may take longer, first to identify the need, bid and buy land, plus also to get consensus from neighborhood organizations on what the project is going be, design considerations, etcetera.”

Other factors may include a delay in state or federal matching dollars or, say perhaps, a multiyear global pandemic. Sometimes, though, it’s just a matter of bureaucracy and political turnover.

Keeping Tabs

(Samantha Morell for Biscayne Times)

Former County Commissioner Sally Heyman supported the Building Better Communities bond proposal during her time in office.

Former District 4 Commissioner Sally Heyman, a supporter of the Building Better Communities bond program, has nevertheless seen projects stall due to a lack of accountability. For example, the projected completion date has shifted time and again on the new mental health diversion facility at 2200 NW Seventh Ave., which Heyman championed alongside Judge Steve Liefman. It still isn’t open today.

Heyman also noted the ongoing construction of a new boat ramp at Haulover Park Marina, a project that began in 2022 with a projected completion date of June 2023 but is still underway.

“A lot of things didn’t get done,” said Heyman. “Well, who the hell is minding the projects? Where’s the supervisor? Where’s the accountability?”

The county’s parks department was unable to comment on the ongoing Haulover Park project by this publication’s deadline.

Heyman said she made sure when she held office to receive weekly updates on projects she deemed important, even if they weren’t in her district. She wonders how many of the new commissioners even know which bond projects fall within their jurisdiction.

“The people of our community – it’s their money, and we’re their voice,” said Heyman. “They need to have confidence.”

There are mechanisms in place to make sure that a bond obligation is met according to its original intent, says Penelas. There is a citizens’ advisory committee that meets at least four times a year to provide input on the bond’s implementation, plus voters have legal pathways to pursue if they believe their money isn’t being used properly.

Projects funded and completed under the Building Better Communities bond program in District 4, which encompasses the Biscayne Corridor, include drainage projects and water and sewer enhancements in Miami Shores, Golden Beach, North Bay Village, Sunny Isles and Surfside; a recreational community center at Claude Pepper Park in North Miami; a city hall in Biscayne Park; a renovation of the Northeast Aventura Branch Library, which became Miami-Dade County’s first sustainable public library; as well as Flamingo Park, Normandy Shores Golf Course and Bandshell Park in Miami Beach.

To Bond or Not to Bond?

Levine Cava’s bond referendum will have to be approved by the county commission before it’s put on the ballot for voters to approve in November. Even still, it’s not a done deal; a bond rating agency will have to assess the county’s fiscal health and approve the issuance of the bond.

The political turntables are already moving, however. Miami Lakes Mayor Manny Cid, who is running against Levine Cava in the August mayoral election, wasted no time before releasing a campaign ad targeting the county mayor’s bond proposal, claiming it would raise property taxes.

Stierheim calls that an “unsubstantiated assumption.”

“The county commission is the only body that can raise taxes,” he said. “It’s in their purview to decide whether taxes change or remain the same. Taxes increasing or decreasing depend on a number of other factors, not just GOBs.”

Penelas noted it’s possible that new bonds be issued as former projects are completed and checked off, providing for minimal change to residents’ property taxes.

“Remember, all she’s asking for is authority to issue the bonds,” he said. “This doesn’t issue the bonds tomorrow. That’s the thing people don’t understand. This debt will be issued as the bonds are issued, and that can be over a period of 20 years or more. It’s not going to all hit us at once.”

“I’m not saying I’m for or against it,” Penelas continued. “I’m just saying that we have to wait and see what the details are so that people can make an informed decision, but you’ve got a lot of people already jumping the gun saying they’re totally against it. It’s irresponsible.”More than a third of the projects promised under a 2004-approved county bond program are still not finished 20 years later – a statistic especially relevant now that Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava wants voters to consider a new bond proposal, this one weighing in at $2.5 billion.

Voters approved the Building Better Communities general obligation bond program in 2004, authorizing the county to incur $2.94 billion in debt – roughly $4.8 billion in today’s dollars – for water and sewer improvements, parks, cultural facilities, infrastructure, public safety, health care, public service and affordable housing. Only 197 of the 355 listed projects under that bond package had been completed as of September 2023.


Alex Penelas, Former Miami-Dade County Mayor

Remember this individual who convinced us to give him a salary of only $92,000 per year, plus all the benefits of a County employee? He retired and is collecting from the Florida Retirement Service a monthly pension for only 8 years of service as Mayor. The Mayor now makes over $300,000 per year and has 3 Police officers assigned to her at all times, with Police escort to every event.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Penelas.

Actually, it’s the $2.5 billion question.

(Phillip Pessar via Wikimedia Commons)

Pérez Art Museum Miami was a $100 million project under the Building Better Communities bond program.


(Samantha Morell for Biscayne Times)

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