More thoughts and tidbits from the Norman Braman trial targeting financing for the Marlins ballpark:
To vote or not to vote: Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen is clearly very thoughtfully weighing how to apply a Florida Supreme Court ruling from September that says if property taxes are used to pay off bonds on major public projects for more than a year, they are subject to a vote of the public. However, the ruling is being reconsidered and is not final. The court is on recess until late August.
Cohen made it very clear that she’s read the Strand v. Escambia County case and similar cases and is comfortable with her interpretation that the Miami-Dade County-city of Miami "scheme" to fund $3 billion in city projects, including a port tunnel, museum park and the ballpark, is subject to a referendum. But she said she's not sure how to apply it in this case. (She also took pains to ensure everyone understood she didn't mean "scheme" in a "sinister" way.)
The referendum question is the key argument remaining in Braman’s case – which was dealt a setback this week when Cohen dismissed two of the complaints dealing with bond financing. Braman believes the financing plan is a “shell game” because it expands Miami’s Community Redevelopment Agenies (CRA) to generate millions in property tax dollars meant for impoverished neighborhoods to pay debt on the performing arts center, thereby freeing up hotel bed tax dollars for the ballpark.
Attorneys for the county, city and team argued the Strand case does not apply because the CRA is not a taxing authority, the CRA dollars are not “pledged” to pay off the bonds, and the ruling isn’t final. Cohen said she understands those arguments, but believes Strand applies because the CRA dollars will be used to pay off bonds. The question for her is how to apply the ruling since it isn’t final.
By the way, Cohen called the proceedings “the trial of the month” because of the media attention they are receiving.
Polls and votes: A poll discussed in court and another released by Bendixen & Associates this week show county voters don’t support public funding for a ballpark. And clearly, team, city and county would prefer to avoid a public vote.
During his testimony this week, Marlins President David Samson said he believes the public supports a ballpark, based on the “hundreds and hundreds of emails,” he’s received from fans. Samson also said he supports “representative democracy,” meaning the people elect politicians to make decisions.
If Cohen does rule in favor of a referendum, it’s questionable whether it would apply to funding for the ballpark. If the county can prove there is no property tax money going to the ballpark other than the $50 million in general obligation bond funding, which was already approved by voters in 2004 – albeit for renovation of the Orange Bowl, not a ballpark – the funding likely wouldn’t be subject to referendum. Since the ballpark is linked – at least on paper – to the $3 billion in projects in the city-county plan, it’s unclear if the public must vote on it as well, with the other projects.
Samson and attendance: Braman attorney Bob Martinez made several attempts to embarrass Samson during his testimony Thursday, including bringing up the question of whether team owner Jeffrey Loria is still his stepfather. Samson said he is not because he divorced Samson’s mother several years ago.
“He was your stepfather?” Martinez asked.
Marlins attorney Sandy Bohrer objected: “Is he going to ask if he has brothers and sisters?”
Martinez later spent several minutes detailing the Marlins’ attendance and that of the Montreal Expos – the team Loria previously owned – pointing out that under Samson’s leadership the teams ranked between 26th and lowest in attendance among MLB’s 30 teams dating back to 2001.
“So your track record, whether you blame it on the stadium or whatever, your track record as president of a baseball team,” Martinez said, “that ballclub, its attendance has ranked at the very bottom whether it was in Miami or Montreal.”
Samson replied: “If you’re trying to say there’s some correlation, you are certainly entitled. It’s a free country.”
What’s next?: The trial resumes Monday with witnesses for the county testifying about the ballpark serving a "paramount public purpose" rather than using public dollars to bankroll a private enterprise, as Braman argues.
Depending how Cohen rules, the team, city and county are planning to proceed with negotiations to wrap up the language in the definitive construction management, assurance, non-relocation and other agreements that spell out the detailed terms for building the ballpark.
Under the Baseball Stadium Agreement approved in February, those documents were meant to come back to the city and county commissions by July 1, but were delayed because of the trial. County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez asked County Manager George Burgess on Thursday when the commissions would see them.
Burgess estimated in late August or September.