Three years after $60 million bond approval, Miami Gardens looks to make up lost time

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More than three years ago Miami Gardens residents voted to approve a $60 million bond issue meant to transform the city and its parks and to provide new opportunities and innovative programming for the city’s young people and families.

Now, only one new park project is set to be completed by year’s end and only a handful of others have approved plans in place. The city’s real time crime center in police headquarters, which was paid for through the bond, was completed last August.

Some residents have expressed frustration over the slow progress. Others question why the city has not provided detailed cost estimates and pricing for the projects that thousands of residents will have to pay off over the next few decades. Project-by-project estimates have not been made available to the public.

“When you do any project, there needs to be an itemization of what you want to do,” Pat Wright, a resident who opposed the bond issue in 2014, said at a recent meeting. “It’s going to be 30 years for us to pay this back and when you all are out of office … we will still be here paying this $60 million.”

The intent of the bond program is to create new buildings, renovate and upgrade all 17 of the city’s parks, and Miami Gardens leaders say that a plan of this scale is always going to take time to complete. They are working to make up for lost time, officials said.

It’s going to be 30 years for us to pay this back and when you all are out of office … we will still be here paying this $60 million.

Pat Wright, bond issue opponent

“The general obligation bond projects were never meant to be a quick fix,” Mayor Oliver Gilbert said. “I want it to move faster too.”

Currently the city has approved contracts for work at six parks. Renovation of the Bunche Park Pool is expected to be completed by the end of 2017 after breaking ground last August. Contracts for work at AJ King, Bennett Lifter, Risco and Scott Parks have been approved, and the city also has a contract in place with Florida Memorial University to build a sports complex.

City Manager Cameron Benson said he recognizes the lack of progress and said that the city wanted to solidify procurement rules before soliciting developers and construction companies. He also admits that the city should have brought Miami-Dade County building officials into the process sooner, to help advise city staff.

“Those things took some time, we got off to a slow start. I wish we would’ve had at least three to four projects done by now,” Benson said.

Bunche Pool groundbreak

Miami Gardens city officials pose with residents at the Bunche Pool groundbreaking ceremony

Lance Dixon

The cost estimates for every project, including the real time crime center, total about $64 million. Most projects include funding from other sources including county funding, grants and separate capital improvement money.

City leaders, arguing that Miami Gardens has been transparent throughout this process, point to the bond oversight committee’s monthly meetings as opportunities for residents to get updates on what’s been spent and the progress of the plans. The purpose of the committee is to make sure the bond funds are going to specific projects and to keep the public informed on how the money is being spent.

But resident Paul Roberts isn’t convinced that the committee is carrying out those goals. He thinks that the city should do more than offer attendance at committee meetings to make the public aware of how money is being spent.

“Identify the source, not only the forecasted budget but also the expenditures. If you can’t account for it, it doesn’t look good,” Roberts said.

The bond plan

Almost a year after the bond measure passed, the council approved a bond implementation plan that details specific improvements for each park but the document does not spell out each project’s costs. That breakdown has been provided to members of the oversight committee, to staff and to the City Council but has not been released in one document to the public. Cost estimates have been included when the council votes on each contract.

When the bond issue was initially introduced, city leaders discussed certain landmark projects including a culinary arts facility, an alternative sports complex, a recording studio, a senior center and a science, technology, engineering and math facility.

▪ The alternative sports complex, which will be the next project to start construction, is planned for Bunche Park. The current recreation building will be torn down and replaced with a multi-story gymnasium with a running track on the second floor and instruction in boxing, gymnastics, martial arts and dance.

Bunche Park

Rendering of the new alternative sports complex planned for Bunche Park in Miami Gardens

Lance Dixon West Architecture and Design

▪ The senior center will be built on property next to the Enrico Dairy Farmhouse at the corner of Northwest 183rd Street and 12th Avenue. The center will also include a walking trail and equipment rooms.

▪ The STEM and recording studio facility will be set at Risco Park. In July 2014, the city negotiated a 40-year lease agreement with the Miami-Dade County School Board. Staffing for the STEM programs will be paid for by the school board, while the city will pay $1 a year for the lease and will handle maintenance of the land.

▪ The culinary center will be built on a vacant property near City Hall.

In addition to those major projects, many of the parks will receive renovated lighting systems, new playgrounds, ADA-compliant parking and lighted walking trails. All of the parks will install new fencing and video surveillance systems and have landscaping and irrigation work done.

Bond’s history and future

Plans for the bond date back to May 2013 when a resolution to explore the bond was approved. It initially called for borrowing $50 million for parks improvements, then increased to $60 million to include public safety technology in the crime center and things like license plate readers.

Miami Gardens City Hall

Miami Gardens City Hall

Lance Dixon

But beyond those descriptions, there wasn’t a thorough breakdown of what projects would be built at the various parks, or their costs, before the issue went out to voters. The bond was approved in April 2014 with about 62 percent of the vote. Only about 13 percent of the city’s registered voters participated in the referendum, which was done through a mail ballot.

By comparison, when Miami-Dade County Schools proposed a $1.2 billion general obligation bond in 2012, the school board established a website and prepared at least two proposals for how the bond would roll out and listed the proposed projects for each school before residents voted.

And when the city of Miami proposed a $275 million bond last summer, there was an itemized list of 134 projects that would be funded and their cost estimates. That proposal was ultimately voted down by Miami commissioners and not placed on the ballot.

Miami Gardens leaders said, in 2014, that the city would establish a website where residents could track the progress of the bond projects and get estimates on how much the bond would cost each homeowner based on their home’s value.

The city’s website has a section about the bond’s history and includes a list of some completed projects including two financed from other sources but that page doesn’t list the status of the various projects or their costs.

Benson says those updates are coming as the city’s main website is undergoing a redesign.

“The website, when we were beginning, could not accommodate all the information we’re talking about,” Benson said.

$39 Annual property taxes paid by owner of median value home to pay off park bond

The owner of a home valued at about $83,000, the median assessed value from the property appraiser’s office, pays about $39 a year in taxes toward the bond.

Benson said that the city will consider including the cost breakdowns in future versions of the bond implementation plan, on the city’s website, as the work continues. The city also plans to send out a newsletter with updates on the bond projects.

And in April, the City Council approved two measure aimed at providing more information for residents. One will require the city manager to give reports and host quarterly workshops about the progress of bond projects. The other will mandate a more thorough presentation of the design of future projects to council members and the public before construction work begins.

“Ultimately these are buildings that are meant to allow families and communities to do things in their neighborhoods that they weren’t able to do. These are the growing pains of a community,” Gilbert said.

The next oversight committee meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. July 11 in Miami Gardens City Hall, 18605 NW 27th Ave.

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