For a long time residents voiced concerns about a lack of efforts to redevelop the downtown district. The biggest problem was seen as lack of sewer hookups, and after more years than it should have taken, the elimination of that problem now seems to be reaching a conclusion.
Other required changes occurred by either creating or modifying ordinances to increase the opportunity for restaurants and possibly even a craft beer establishment to set up shop.
Yet, while these steps were taking place, the last two years also saw the community's attention repeatedly being focused or refocused almost exclusively on the replacement of a new Community Center, and the $20 million bond issue residents were told would be required to pay for the new Center.
This focus on the $20 million bond issue was driven by the Village administration and 4 of the 5 Council members, even though they continually failed to provide adequate answers to detailed questions, which in turn raised concerns about how truthful, or competent the Council members and Tom Benton were, by among other things, continuing to provide financial numbers that didn't make sense.
The final and ultimate response that came from both Benton and the Council to postpone the vote over the $20 million bond issue was an adamant NO.
Some see Benton's response in refusing to support pushing the vote back on the bond issue as an example of firm leadership. Others as an example of an out of touch administrator who has for too long gotten away with doing pretty much what he wanted because of a pliant and weak Village Council, who too easily have been led around by the nose.
It's also true that in a Village this small sometimes projects have to be dealt with sequentially because there isn't enough manpower to deal with more than one major problem at a time, and in this instance, the funding for a new Community Center basically sucked all the oxygen out of the room when it came to paying attention to other issues.
Unfortunately, when you're only focused on one issue, you're often deprived of understanding or appreciating that the decision you're being asked to make on one issue could have unintended consequences on another issue.
As we near a vote on the $20 million bond issue, I believe that many residents are unaware that excluding all of the other arguments or concerns about the construction of a new Community Center, the vote approving a new $20 million bond payment will make it all but impossible for the Village to return to the the bond market either later this year, or next when the Council is presented with options on how to deal with the problems related to building a new Village Hall Complex that includes a Police Station, administrative offices, a parking garage that involves turning to a private developer for help.
RELYING ON THE VILLAGE MANAGER AND THE VILLAGE COUNCIL TO BE TRUTHFUL AND FORTHCOMING HAS BECOME A SERIOUS PROBLEM FOR THE RESIDENTS OF MIAMI SHORES
For me, the alarm bells started going off when I discovered how the purchase of the Catholic Charities Building had been handled.
The failure to obtain an independent appraisal of the building, followed by the way in which the City Attorney, at the end of a long and contentious meeting about the operation of the Charter School slipped in a request for an Emergency Resolution to allow him and the Village Manager to finalize the purchase of the building without providing any paperwork was just a classic example of a deal that reeked of being rigged.
The failure of anyone on the Council to express concern over the ploy used by the Village Attorney to get them to vote on this purchase, or even so much as to ask questions, including how the Village was going to pay for this building, also led me to believe that whether it could be proven or not, the odds were that discussions about Village business was being conducted in private and out of the Sunshine.
Those concerns prompted me to start looking at the underlying reasons for why the Catholic Charities building might be so important that the purchase was handled in such an underhanded manner, which first led me to the RMA contracts, and from there, thanks to the help of some of my sources I was able to find the connections between RMA and Vice Mayor Steven Zelkowitz.
All of this resulted in my asking for, and receiving on March 10th, a copy of the report that RMA had been contracted to create on September 20th, to provide the Village with options on redeveloping the property on which Village Hall, the Police Station and the Catholic Charities building sit, as well as the remainder of the downtown district.
The results of this report were not intended be made public until AFTER the April 18th election, which is understandable, because there would be a signifiant change in the makeup of the Council, and allowing outgoing members to make any determination on the findings of the report that includes recommendations for making "amendments to the regulations governing development," didn't make much sense, especially when the recommendations included a suggestion that in order to maximize a return on his/her investment by not only building spaces for retail and commercial development and also managing any parking garage built on the site, the developer might also be given the Village owned property as part of the deal.
In addition, the report also touched on the larger issue of redeveloping all of the downtown district, and here is where everyone needs to pay real attention.
THE RMA REPORT
The RMA report submitted in February centered on 3 scenarios to redevelop the the two blocks owned by the Village. Here are those 3 scenarios. (The complete report is at the bottom of this story.)
THE VILLAGE BY THE BAY
MARCH 24, 2017
AS IMPORTANT AS SOME MIGHT HAVE YOU BELIEVE THE CONSTRUCTION OF A NEW COMMUNITY CENTER IS TO THE FUTURE OF THE VILLAGE, THE SIMULTANEOUS EFFORT TO REDEVELOP DOWNTOWN MIAMI SHORES COULD CHANGE THE IMAGE AND QUALITY OF LIFE IN THE VILLAGE IN WAYS AS YET NOT EVEN IMAGINED. THE PASSAGE OF THE $20 MILLION BOND ISSUE FOR THE COMMUNITY CENTER COULD TURN OUT TO BITE RESIDENTS WHEN THEY FIND OUT THAT THE REAL COSTS TO BUILD A NEW VILLAGE HALL MIGHT INCLUDE 5 STORY BUILDINGS, AND A GIVEAWAY OF VILLAGE LAND
Raising the height of the buildings "to at least 5 stories," is certainly not something that most people in Miami Shores have previously heard mentioned at any Council meetings, and while this portion of the RMA report is focused on the 2 blocks owned by the Village, further down in the report (Page 8-9) the language expands to include the recommendation of "an increase in the height limits for the district."
Changing the current height limits in the downtown district by increasing them to a minimum of 5 stories would change the identity of the "Village" into a "Town."
The implications of just this one change, including the way in which taller commercial buildings would impact on the property values of the homes closest to these buildings wold be significant and far reaching.
Understand, that if the Village were to move to increase the building heights "to at least 5 stories" for just their property, you can bet that some of the owners of other commercial buildings along NE 2nd would not waste much time before mounting a legal challenge by claims of unfair competition and of being deprived of the same opportunity.
If such a legal challenge were successful - and even it it wasn't, the law firm of Genovese Joblove & Battista, where part-time Village Attorney Richard Sarafan is a partner would make another killing in legal fees - then you'd have to add the confusion and disruption of 2-3-4-5 years of construction as some of the property owners decide that tearing down their 1-2 story buildings and building taller buildings.
The RMA report also recommended up-zoning to allow residential living on the higher floors of these buildings which would lead to a need for significant new parking spaces, requiring more than just one parking garage, and all of that would require providing additional public services for all of these new residents and visitors, starting with increased police protection.
All of a sudden issues over replacing Village Hall could create real angst among a lot of folks in the Village.
All of that however, is in the future, and would require a number of steps that haven't even been contemplated, much less discussed or voted on. But, using the example of how the process for the Community Center has been handled, there is no assurance that everything that I've described would come to pass.
While that's all in the future, the issue that everyone needs to focus on now is the way that Tom Benton with the assistance of several Council members, most notably Mayor Alice Burch, and Councilmen Mac Glinn and Steven Zelkowitz have driven the decisions forcing the residents to vote on a $20 million bond issue, because even before the delivery of this report from RMA, they had to have known and anticipated that following the vote on the $20 million bond issue the Council would tackle this problem next, and report or no report, the options available for financing a new Village Hall Complex were few, and removing the possibility of going back to the bond market to finance this new Village Hall Complex was an option that they clearly had to have considered as part of their calculations in forcing a vote on April 20th.
RMA IS A COMPANY THAT CUSTOMIZES THEIR REPORTS TO REFLECT AND SUPPORT THE OPINIONS AND DIRECTION THAT THE ELECTED AND PUBLIC OFFICIALS WHO HIRE THEM WANT TO GO
Let's put aside the notion that resident input, or meetings with "stakeholders" played any significant role in this report on the redevelopment of the Village buildings and the downtown district.
Last year, the Council awarded several contracts to RMA, the company that also hired Council member Zelkowitz on that Palm Springs deal. The first two contracts dealt with creating a Master Design Criteria for the possible redevelopment of the downtown district along with a separate traffic study followed by a contract to produce the report that would provide options on how to redevelop and finance a new Village Hall Complex, and possibly the rest of the downtown district.
You have to understand that companies like RMA don't go out and reinvent the wheel. What they do is take the limited options available - which in this case would have been either build a new Village Hall Complex either using public money - a bond issue - or private money from a developer.
From that starting point, companies like RMA take the instructions or desires of folks like a Village Manager and/or a Village Council, and then craft a report that provides them the justifications and options that they need or want in order to persuade their residents to go along with whatever deal that that the report recommends.
This isn't an exercise in democracy, although the effort is made to persuade folks that it is. This is inside baseball where the goal of the public officials and the company is to come up with a report that can hopefully be used as a sales tool.
REALITY IS WHAT IT IS
There are folks who having read this far will say, 'Hey, just because some company produced a report doesn't mean that anything will happen because of it. The report could be completely ignored.'
That's true, it could be ignored. But, it's very doubtful that it will be.
First, there is a recognized need for a new Village Hall Complex, and even a parking garage to accomodate the most minimum increase in downtown businesses, and one way or another that need needs to be addressed.
Secondly, the options for how to address this needs is not infinite. Either you solve the problem with public money, or private money, unless of course the Village starts buying lottery tickets in the hopes of financing a new Village Hall by winning a Powerball jackpot.
Thirdly, a certain amount of political capital has already been committed to using a public/private partnership(P3), especially by Mac Glinn, who is running as hard and fast as he can in an effort to become the Mayor so that he can be the one to oversee this process.
While I have disagreed with the claims that the budget estimates Glinn provided was somehow a way for him to worm his way into trying to get an inside track for his company to build the center is wrong, the fact of the matter is that Glinn's company has become a major player and promoter of P3 projects, and in his words and actions so far he's supported the notion that at least in principle he's committed to supporting the idea of using a PD deal to build a new Village Hall Complex.
Again, this in no way implies that this embrace of P3's is intended to be part of some conspiracy to open the way for Skanka to get the job, because that won't happen, but it does mean that Glinn's commitment to going the P3 route could blind him to the pitfalls that could result from the changes that would have to be made to accomodate a deal with a developer.
HOW P3'S WORK
To appreciate where Glinn has gotten his appreciation for P3 deals, here is a video that his company produced that explains, from their perspective, how these deals work.
My first observation regarding these scenarios is that one option was missing from this presentation.
That option would involve the Village building a new Village Hall, Police Station and possibly parking garage on it's own, bypassing any redevelopment deals with a private developer. This option would have to be self-financed through the issuance of bonds.
Not only is that option missing, but the portion that I highlighted in YELLOW goes out of its way to make a version of that option unpalatable to both residents and a private developer.
Consequently I believe the first scenario was placed there just as window dressing for the purpose of driving the focus and decision-making towards one of the other two scenarios.
The critical thing about the last two scenarios is the first sentence in each that I've highlighted in BLUE.
What does "amendments to the site regulations" mean? Glad you asked.
Here's what RMA says it means.
As with all of these kinds of self-promotional presentations, the concepts all look good in the abstract.
Missing are the behind-the-scenes, sausage-making political deal-making that's also part of some of these deals that include very large campaign donations, bid-rigging, self-dealing and all the other messy stuff that goes along when private developers look for ways to get into bed with politicians as a way to insure that they get a piece of what can be a very lucrative pie.
SO WHAT'S THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THE RMA REPORT PROMOTING A P3 SOLUTION AND THE $20 MILLION BOND ISSUE?
While there's no smoking gun or trail of documents, there's more than ample reason to believe, based on the actions of those who have pushed for the April 18th vote on the $20 million bond issue, that this decision, at least in part has as much to do with removing the possibility of bond money being available to build a new Village Hall Complex as it was to build a Community Center.
Let's be very clear about that. If the bond issue passes, then there is no way that either later this year, or even next year would the Village be able to go back to the bond market to float another $20 - $25 million bond issue.
And that, according to the RMA report, is how much they are projecting it will cost to build this Complex. (See pages 8-9-10 of the report.)
Like it or not, remove the ability to float a bond issue, and the Village either has to go with a private developer, or decide not to go forward at all.
TRUST THE VILLAGE MANAGER, THE VILLAGE ATTORNEY AND THE VILLAGE COUNCIL AT YOUR OWN RISK
In less than a month, I am surprised by how openly and flagrantly I've been able to see examples of what clearly supports a belief that the Village of Miami Shores largely operates outside of the Sunshine, and that they've behaved this way for so long without any challenges that everyone now believes this is all legal and aboveboard.
In addition, in a period of less than 3 weeks of focusing on the activities surrounding the decision making and management of the Village, I've uncovered the fact that the Village Manager and Village Attorney renegotiated the rental terms for the lease agreement with the management company that runs the Village owned County Club/Golf Course resulting in a net loss of $585,980.60 to the Village treasury.
I also discovered and revealed the deceptive and sneaky manner in which the Village Attorney obtained permission for him and the Village Manager to go forward with the purchase the Catholic Charities Building without complying with a most basic practice by government agencies when buying property - obtaining an independent property appraisal of that property - and the Manager's own commitment to provide the Council with a "final proposal with the total cost as well as the recommended financing for this project."
A financing document for the purchase of the Catholic Charities Building was never created, and to this date the Village Manager has not provided any public information on the financing of this purchase.
I also revealed how Vice Mayor Steven Zelkowitz engaged in a flagrant conflict of interest vote granting the Village Manager the authority to hire RMA to produce the Financial Feasibility Report on the redevelopment of the property. I have every reason to believe that in the weeks to come I will reveal even more, and troubling examples of mismanagement and either gross incompetence or out-and-out chicanery in the way that the Village has been managed.
Now, there are those - including many who have been blessed by being provided Benton's personal cellphone number, the better to receive personal attention to their concerns - who in spite of the above information would argue that Tom Benton is a wonderful human being and a first class administrator who would never screw over the residents.
Many of those people will no doubt will continue to reject any suggestion that the information in this story claiming that the decision to push forward a vote on the $20 million bond issue was consciously done at least in part as a way to remove the possibility to finance the redevelopment of a new Village Complex through the return to the bond market if the bond issue for the Community Center was approved.
But I would caution everyone else who might think that this juxtaposition of interests and actions was just a coincidence, are clueless as to how in the world of politics things often gets done, and in politics, coincidences are very few, and very far between.
Just remember, if the $20 million bond issue gets approved and you show up up at a Council meeting in late April or May and ask why the redevelopment of Village owned property can't be self-financed instead of doing a deal with a private developer, and the answer that comes back that that's impossible because the Village can't keep going back to the bond market to keep funding the big ticket items that it needs, remember that you heard that answer here first.
Better yet, as you consider who to vote for, you might want to ask the candidates that if they are elected, will they willing to fire the Village Manager and replace the part-time Village Attorney?
It's either going to come to that, or you're going to need to go to Walgreen's to buy a large jar of Vasaline, to make the screwing you've been getting, and will continue to get with these guys less painful.