Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hotel tax hike to pay for stadium upgrade draws mixed responses

Hotel tax hike to pay for stadium upgrade draws mixed responses


MIAMI GARDENS – A proposal to hike Miami-Dade County's hotel tax by a penny for every dollar and use the anticipated $289 million to help fund major renovations of Sun Life Stadium is drawing mixed reaction from the black community.

Arrayed on one side of the plan are heavyweights such as Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert and attorney H.T. Smith.

The line up on the other side includes veteran community activist Betty Ferguson and attorney Christine M. King, president/CEO of the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation (MLKEDCO).

Officials of the pro football team, which is owned by billionaire Steven M. Ross, insist that the money is needed to make the stadium competitive for marquee sports events, in particular the Super Bowl.  According to the officials, those events generate huge financial boosts for local economies, averaging in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  

Many local elected officials and business leaders support the plan but it hits a sore point with some African Americans who are not so sure the deal and its purported benefits are worth so much money, especially during times of limited county fiscal resources.  There is also concern that the poorer communities will not see much if any of the windfall projected.

Jordan, whose district includes Miami Gardens, home of the stadium where the Miami Dolphins play, is one of the more vocal proponents. 

“I’m absolutely in favor of it,” said Jordan, who sponsored a resolution in the County Commission to put the issue to a referendum.

Earlier this month, the commission picked May 14 for the public vote, pending approval in the Legislature for the proposed hike on the hotel tax.  The Legislature is expected to decide on that sometime during the first week in May.  

Dolphins officials point to a sense of urgency, noting the National Football League will announce the host cities for Super Bowls 50 and 51 by May 22 and final bids are due to the NFL by May 8.

The Dolphins are pledging to repay $112 million over 30 years out of the $289 million the team would receive from Miami-Dade County over 26 years. 

In an effort to show a good faith effort to bring what Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez calls “tier 1 events” to the county, the Dolphins have also agreed to be subjected to up to $120 million in penalties if the venue does not host a certain number of those games and matches.   Smith, of Miami First, a Florida non-profit created in March to push the stadium plan, said over the next 30 years the stadium must host four Super Bowls, four college national championship games and 20 international soccer matches for the formula to work.

Jordan said the plan will not get off of the ground if the Dolphins are not awarded one of the next two Super Bowls.

“If [the Miami Dolphins] don’t get either [Super Bowls] 50 or 51, they don’t get our money,” Jordan said.

Another extension of that good faith effort came in the form of a pledge by the Dolphins to foot the bill for the $4.8 million needed to pay for the special election which will feature 540 voting sites.

Miami Gardens’ Gilbert said emphatically that he is “in favor of renovating the stadium.”

“Sun Life Stadium is our largest taxpayer and our largest employer,” the mayor said.  An upgrade to the stadium is “in the city’s best interest,” added Gilbert, because the improvements will increase the value of the property, which will, in turn, increase taxes.   

Miami Gardens City Manager Danny Crew said the sports facility currently generates $900,000 annually in property taxes.  Estimating how much more will come from a renovated stadium is difficult, he said, but, to use an example, if the upgrades result in an additional property appraisal of $200 million, the city could see an additional $1.2 million in property tax revenue, he said.

Ferguson, who with her late husband Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr., led the initial fight to block the construction of the stadium in the early 1980s, said the current debate about public dollars to fund even a portion of the cost of stadium upgrades is “not the same fight.”

“I don’t see any harm to the Miami Gardens community,” said Ferguson. “The argument seems to be ‘we’re not taking away money from any areas.’ They’re hoping voters will focus on that.”

The biggest concern for the retired county commissioner, whose former seat Jordan now holds, is priorities.  Using tax dollars to finance the stadium upgrade, she said, is “absolutely not” the best use of public funds.  

“When I look at the allocation for the school system, it’s enough to bring you to tears,” said Ferguson, who cited areas of need such security on school buses, funding for arts programs, crumbling facilities and the gradual closing of schools such as Edison and Parkway middle Schools. 

 “We’re not investing in our children to the extent that we should,” Ferguson said. 

The MLKEDCO’s King also has concerns about benefits to the community from the proposed deal. 

King recently met with Anthony Robinson of Miami First in response to calls from her to “F the Stadium” – as in “Fix the Stadium.”

“It certainly got their attention,” she said.

 King said she has gone out of her way to reach out to Gimenez, Jordan, Dolphin President Mike Dee and others involved in the negotiating the deal.  She wants “a global agreement” not just to benefit Miami Gardens and not just for Super Bowls, which she describes as “temporary” events, but for all of Miami-Dade County.

“Those dollars don’t really trickle down to the black community,” King said.  “We feel that the agreement is lacking economic opportunity for Miami-Dade County as a whole.”

Smith maintains that the Dolphins have been good corporate citizens.

The well-known attorney, who is noted for launching a boycott of tourism in Miami after the city snubbed Nelson Mandela during the anti-apartheid crusader’s visit to the city in 1990, said he has been working with the Dolphins and the NFL since 1995 when Super Bowl XXIX was played in Miami.  He said he contacted the Dolphins for help to get a $1 million grant for seed money from the league to build what is now the NFL Youth Education Town (Y.E.T.) program at Gwen Cherry Park in Liberty City. 

On the strength of what he called “strong recommendations” from the Dolphins and the South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee, the NFL awarded the grant – and the Dolphins donated $100,000 towards the project, Smith said.

“Every time a Super Bowl has come to Miami since 1995, the NFL donates $500,000 to Y.E.T. and, in 2010, Miami-Dade County matched the NFL’s contribution,” said Smith. “They’ve been there for my community,” Smith, explaining why he is helping to push the to stadium upgrade plan.

State Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, co-sponsored a bill with  former colleague Michael S. “Mike” Bennett, R- Bradenton, when both were in the state senate stipulating that any professional sports team that receives state funding for their stadiums become more active corporate citizens. This was interpreted to refer to issues such as creating homeless shelters on stadium grounds and prohibiting local television “black outs” for games that are not sold out.

Fasano sees the stadium upgrade debate as more than just a Miami-Dade question.  “If the voters of Miami-Dade want to have at it, God bless them. I just don’t want the rest of the state to pay for it,” Fasano said.

Although a self-described long-time Dolphins fan, Fasano is “adamantly opposed” to the plan to subsidize the stadium upgrades. Fasano points out the Dolphins already receive $2 million annually from the Florida Department of Revenue per statute.  That law is Section 288.1162, F.S., which outlines how any pro sports team in Florida can ”receive state funding for the purpose of paying for the acquisition, construction, reconstruction, or renovation of a facility for a new or retained professional sports franchise.”  The Dolphins are due to continue to receive their share until 2023.

Smith points out that the Dolphins are the only professional sports franchise that pays taxes in Miami-Dade County: the $900,000 in property taxes paid to Miami Gardens which represents about one percent of the city’s $70 million operating budget.

That said, a big part of this debate is the validity of the highly-touted claims of marquee events like the Super Bowl creating a huge boost to a local economy. 

“The high figures usually thrown about regarding the economic impact of events like the Super Bowl – especially in a community like Miami – can be misleading,” said Victor Matheson of Holy Cross College in Massachusetts who, with Robert Baade of Lake Forest College in Illinois, has spent much of the past 20 years researching the validity of claims of economic stimulus from major sporting events.

They said other factors besides the Super Bowl contribute to the local economy during the time the event is held, including a greater influx of tourists not in town for sports reasons. Baade said that the economic impact is “routinely exaggerated” especially in warm cities where tourists typically flock to during late January, early February when the Super Bowl is typically held.

Like Ferguson, Baade raises the issue of “alternative uses” for the money that would otherwise fund the renovations, such as transportation, communication and schools.

Based on their research, Matheson said that, for residents of Miami-Dade County, if the decision to vote for the stadium upgrade is based on team spirit, then the choice is easy. 

On the other hand, he said, if the decision to vote for the upgrade is based on economics, it would be “an ill-informed decision.”

Friday, April 19, 2013

Gloria Rolando in Miami

Acclaimed Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando finished the last leg of her most recent U.S. tour with a special trip to Miami's Little Haiti to talk about Cuba, Haiti, and the ties that bind.  She showed the second chapter of her ground-breaking documentary 1912: Breaking the Silence which was well-received by the audience at the historic Libreri Mapou which hosted Gloria and the screening.    

A few nights later, she was on hand to show the final chapter of the 1912 trilogy at the downtown campus of Miami-Dade College.  Diaspora Vibe hosted the event which was a wonderful way to wrap up Gloria's busy itinerary which took her to Atlanta, Palm Coast & Gainesville, Florida, Stanford University and Bethune-Cookman University.  

Below are some photographs I took during Gloria's week in Miami.

[All photographs byJosé Pérez - all rights reserved -- todos fotos por José Pérez - todos derechos reservado] 

Gloria and Jan Mapou of Sosyete Koukouy enjoyed a great conversation about Cuba's Haitian heritage inside of his wonderful bookstore on NE 2 Avenue.  

Gloria took time to stop and pay homage to Haiti's first great hero, Toussaint L'Ouverture.

After the showing Chapter 2 of her ground-breaking documentary, 1912: Breaking the Silence at the Libreri Mapou, Gloria had a chance to meet and talk with Yolande Thomas, graceful guardian of Haitian folklore and culture and member of Sosyete Koukouy.
 Gloria was also pleased to meet Yvette Rodriguez and Yvonne Rodriguez at the Libreri Mapou in Little Haiti.

 Gloria and Ileana Casanova at the Mapou Bookstore.

Gloria with Bahia Ramos (l) of the James L. Knight Foundation and Rosie Gordon-Wallace (r), Executive Director of Diaspora Vibe, Inc. after the downtown Miami screening.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Activists Slam Out-of-School Suspensions

Activists Slam Out-of-School Suspensions
story & photos by José Pérez

OPA-LOCKA – Several hundred people turned out on a rainy Monday night to express concerns over school suspensions and call for increased community response to youth crime. 

The event, held at New Birth Baptist Church Cathedral of Faith International in Opa-locka, was organized and hosted by People Acting for Community Together (PACT). 

The grassroots group comprising different religious congregations focuses on the high numbers of youth in

socially vulnerable areas of Miami-Dade County who are being suspended from school for weeks at a time. 

PACT also cites studies that draw links between areas with high numbers of suspended students and spikes in crime rates in those areas.

Representatives from Miami-Dade County, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the city of Miami Gardens were called before the large gathering to listen to needs, respond to demands and make promises for solutions. “We came here to take action,” said the Rev. Robert Brooks, pastor of St. Peter’s Missionary Baptist Church.

PACT based its argument on data from 10 high schools for the academic years of 2010-11 and 2011-12: Miami Carol City, Miami Northwestern, Miami Central, North Miami Beach, Hialeah Miami-Lakes, Miami Edison, Miami Jackson, Homestead, South Dade and Miami Southridge.

The data showed that, for the 2011-12 school year, more than 27 percent of the total students enrolled in those schools were given out-of-school-suspension, representing an overall increase of almost 2 percent over the previous school year.  Almost all of these suspensions were due to minor rule infractions.

PACT also reported that “67 percent of juvenile crime is committed by high school aged children Tuesday through Friday,” mostly “when students are out of school.”

DeeAnne Barnard of Theos Family Ministry said that PACT representatives discussed the matter with Miami-Dade County School Board Member Wilbert Holloway and other school district officials last year. 

From that meeting, Barnard said, policy changes were proposed that include making sure that minor infractions were not grounds for suspension.  The ultimate goal of the group is to effectively cap the out-of-school

suspension rate at not more than 10 percent,” she said.   

Deputy School Superintendent Valtena Brown was asked by PACT to pledge that the district will observe the 10 percent cap each school year within three years. Brown promised to do so within five years.

 PACT members said their goal is to ensure what Kevin Brown of Love Fellowship Ministries in Bunche Park called a “safe learning environment for all children.” 

Juan Manzueta of St. Monica Catholic School added that PACT wants “children to be in supervised settings where they can learn.”  In other words, if a student violates the school district’s code of conduct, activists want suspension, if that is necessary, that will allow them to stay in school, arguing that out-of-school suspensions are being overused and inappropriately used..

 With regard to crime, Brown said “a collaborative effort” is needed to address the problem. He and others said Miami-Dade County’s Neighborhood Resource Units or NRUs can be a starting point.

Joan Lyons of Christ the King Catholic Church in Perrine described the NRU model as “effective” but needing refinement and support. Other NRUs should also be created where needed. Specifically, PACT identified South Miami Heights and Miami Gardens as high priority areas in need of NRUs.

Miami Gardens Police Major Alfred Lewis said he did not have the power to commit to such a move, deferring instead to Police Chief Matthew Boyd and the Miami Gardens City Council.

Rabbi Gary Glickstein of Temple Beth Sholom was not discouraged.

“We intend to continue to work with Miami Gardens,” he said.  “Our goals are their goals.” 

 Miami-Dade Police Department Director J.D. Patterson was receptive to the ideas presented by PACT, including committing to strengthening NRUs through a partnership with the police.

Miami-Dade County Deputy Mayor Russell Benford drew rousing applause when he promised to ensure that several county departments were included within the fabric of the NRUs, including the departments of health, police, public housing and juvenile justice, and the South Florida WorkForce. 

The county will build what will be the first permanent WorkForce facility in a public housing development, Benford said.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"County Gets Set for Trayvon Verdict"

"County Gets Set for Trayvon Verdict"
story & fotos by José Pérez

MIAMI – With the murder trial for George Zimmerman, accused of killing Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford in 2012, due to begin in just over two months in Seminole County, officials in Miami-Dade County are preparing for possible trouble in the event that a not-guilty verdict is handed down.

As part of the preparation, the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board (CRB) and Miami-Dade Youth Commission hosted a youth summit March 28 to “promote non-violence.”  

Held in the chambers of the Miami-Dade Commission in the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami, the meeting’s goal was “taking action to empower and protect our youth and our community in response to the Trayvon Martin court case.”  

The organizers scree-ned news footage of the 1980 upheaval that greeted the not-guilty verdicts handed down in a Tampa courtroom against four county police officers accused of manslaughter and evidence tampering following the beating death of Arthur McDuffie.

“We don’t need Miami rioting regardless of the outcome of this trial,” said the Rev. Dr. Walter Richardson, chairman of the CRB. He co-chaired the meeting with Jude Bruno, chairman of the Youth Commission.

Attorney Ed Shohat, a panelist along with Richardson and Bruno and other members of the Youth Commission, discussed judicial proceedings in a criminal trial. He said the primary focus of the criminal justice system is protection of law-abiding citizens.

“We’d rather have the guilty go free than the innocent go to prison,” Shohat said.

County Commissioner Xavier Saurez said rumor control is paramount and he encouraged the community to “get accurate facts” about the trial, set to begin on June 10, and its outcome.

Suarez, a former mayor of Miami, acknowledged that “there’s always a level of community unrest and dissatisfaction” but added that many of the causes, such as high youth unemployment among African Americans, can be addressed through Miami-Dade’s financial resources which include a $6.2 billion annual capital operating budget.

Delma Noel-Pratt, chief of the Miami-Dade Police Department’s North Operations Division, said her department’s action plan includes an “Incident Management Team.”

The Miami-Dade Police Department has been communicating with counterparts in Seminole County, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, she said.  The “interdepartmental exchange of information” has included discussions about strategies and tactics and has led to officials in Seminole County creating their own Community Relations Board.

The county police action plan has involved training sessions and identifying “areas of concern” or potential areas of protest, Noel-Pratt said.  

The department, she said, is most concerned about both North Miami-Dade and South Miami-Dade but, she added, “we can’t really narrow down or identify one particular place so the Plan of Action is for both ends of the county.”  

That means, she said, that there will be command posts in both the northern and southern ends of the county, with a “visible” presence of uniformed officers, as well as an unspecified number of “undercover officers.”

Noel-Pratt said the main purpose for and guiding principle of her department’s planning related to the Zimmerman trial “is to have peace.”

“We’re hoping that, no matter the verdict, there will be peace,” she said.

Nannette Badger, a Miami-Dade County Public Schools officer, said her agency’s planning includes the fact that schools will be on vacation when the trial starts June 10 so no student demonstrations are anticipated.  

Lina Rojas of the Youth Commission had a plea to law enforcement agencies as they plan for the aftermath of the trial and call for peace.   “We ask that the police lead by example,” Rojas said, adding that many times the line between peace and heavy-handedness “gets blurred.”  

Noel-Pratt responded by emphasizing that the Miami-Dade Police Department’s action plan puts priority on “interpersonal skills.”

Shohat said the summit’s purpose was to promote nonviolence, “not to repeat the mistakes of the past.”  

 To achieve that, Richardson said, it is vital that the community “help us get the word out (about)an action plan that will inform.”