Billed for Bull
It was a stunning about-face for the man who runs the Broward County Courthouse.
Chief Judge Victor Tobin, the same man who had virtually pleaded with commissioners for months to build more courthouse space, met with county staffers and told them that a planned $31 million addition to add ten courtrooms wouldn't be necessary after all.
"The economic times have changed over the last year to the detriment of all citizens of Broward County," Tobin wrote July 29 in an email to county commissioners. "After much thought, it is time to pause and take a second look at the ten courtroom addition presently being planned."
It's true that Tobin wants to instead put the money toward courthouse parking and renovation. But it was still an occurrence about as rare in Broward County as a snowflake falling from the subtropical sky — a public official sacrificing a bit of his empire.
So when the budget vote came up last week, you'd think the County Commission would have already killed the project and freed up $30 million to $35 million. Doing so, after all, could save 24 county employees from being laid off and keep commissioners from canceling several bus routes.
It didn't happen. It would've made too much sense. The unnecessary project is still in the county's massive $3.7 billion budget, the tens of millions are still set to be wasted, the 24 workers will still lose their livelihoods, and the bus routes will be canceled at a time when a bad economy and high gasoline prices have made public transportation more crucial than ever.
The commissioners know the county — hell, the world — is in grave financial trouble. But they're still stuck in the mindset of the big-spending housing boom, a time when the county went through hundreds of millions of dollars. Just for starters, we'll be paying back the $400 million parks bond until 2021.
The only commissioner who brought up the unnecessary $31 million project was John Rodstrom, who has increasingly been willing to step in front of the out-of-control Tiananmen tank that the county has become.
But there was nothing he could do. The contract to build the addition has already been doled out to James Cummings, a well-connected contractor who has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to commissioners over the years. Who's going to tell Cummings they don't need it anymore?
Not the commission, apparently.
"So we have $35 million set aside for a ten-courtroom addition that the chief judge has told us we do not need?" Rodstrom asked rhetorically at a September 23 commission meeting. "But it's in our budget. That will fund Tri-Rail for how many years?... I mean, $30 million is a boatload of money when... we can't fund these things that are vital to these people."
The fun part was listening to county Mayor Lois Wexler defend the money drain. Wexler has slowly transformed herself into a human version of spackling paste, helping to hold together the commission's longstanding culture of waste and mismanagement.
"The thing is that we're throwing things out here now with... we're literally throwing things out here now," she stammered. "And, yes, I understand that we can go line by line, and we can sit back, and we can do this tonight."
Rodstrom called her bluff.
"Let's do it," he said. "Let's do it."
"Commissioner, commissioner, you know what? It's once again our wants versus our needs," Wexler continued, apparently intent on sputtering gibberish.
"Then just vote me down and just dismiss me," Rodstrom said.
"I'm not dismissing you."
"And I don't mean it that way, but by God, $30 million we have in this budget, and we have a chief judge that says he doesn't need it," Rodstrom kept on. "How can we defend it? How do we defend putting it in our budget?"
That was the best question of the night — and it was never answered. At the end of the night, the votes of seven commissioners were enough to approve the budget. Rodstrom and Josephus Eggelletion were the only ones to vote against it.
The commissioners, who are paid $94,000 a year, simply aren't adept at doing its only real job: stewarding the public's money. Instead, it's engineered to feed special interests. For instance, another project mentioned by Rodstrom during last Tuesday's meeting was the plan to construct a $17.7 million building for the Broward Addiction Recovery Center (BARC).
Broward County Auditor Evan Lukic investigated the existing center earlier this year and found that it was underused and wasting money. Lukic also questioned the need to spend the money to build a new center. To this day, there has never been any report that justifies the need for it.
When Lukic revealed the findings of his investigation, the commission responded not by cutting spending on the center or killing the project for a new building. No, our elected leaders instead hired a consultant to do more studies of BARC — in an obvious attempt to contradict the county auditor.
Maybe the commission just didn't want to deal with the powerful and vocal board of directors, which is led by Rocky Rodriguez, a former Broward County property appraiser.
"It's a sacred cow," explains Rodstrom, who wants to kill the BARC project and renovate the existing building instead.
Without the courthouse and the center, the commission frees up $50 million in the budget. But, again, that would be too smart and efficient.
It's not just big-ticket items that the commission throws our money away on either. Exhibit C: The old house at 4414 Surf Rd. in Hollywood.
The county bought the house for $3.7 million in 2003 after the death of its former owner, June Carpenter, a former Hollywood city employee and community leader. The county used some of the $400 million parks bond money it received in 2001 to make the purchase.
Buying the property wasn't a bad idea. It was in the middle of Hollywood North Beach Park, after all, surrounded by sea grapes and ocean. But never underestimate the county's ability to botch even good ideas.
First, the price was way too much, even at the top of the land boom. The property might be worth half that now. But hey, at least the broker made some good coin on the deal. State Rep. Tim Ryan's family business handled the transaction at the request of the executor of the estate. It's a small world in Broward, you know.
The plan for the Carpenter House, as it's called, was to turn it into a facility to study and rehabilitate turtles. Don't laugh. This was back when the county was flush with bond money and property-tax revenues. Back then, extravagances for turtles seemed perfectly reasonable.
Well, four years passed and the county did nothing — except spend more money to maintain the property, of course. The house, meanwhile, deteriorated. Initially, the county paid a Wackenhut guard as security, but now the county rents the property for $50 a month to a Hollywood police officer who serves as caretaker.
Broward County Parks Director Bob Harbin says there was so much work going on with the rest of the $400 million bond that the Surf Road project sat neglected.
The turtle idea has been scrapped, but the county still wants to turn the house into an educational center. The cost: $900,000 to renovate the house ($600,000 of that would be paid from a state grant). Harbin estimates it would take as much as $200,000 a year to run the center.
People who live in the North Beach area find the idea idiotic for an obvious reason. Less than a mile away is the Anne Kolb Nature Center, a premiere environmental education facility.
The neighborhood wants the county to cut its losses, tear down the house, and return the land to the park.
"They want to push this down our throats, but why?" asks John Passalacqua, a 27-year resident and president of the North Beach Neighborhood Association. "I don't know. You're going to tell me you want an educational center when Anne Kolb is in view of the place? Why would you spend all this money that you don't have on a building that you don't need? We're not for it. It's not what they sold us on."
Tough luck, North Beach. The county put the renovation project out to bid last week.
And so it goes. More than $50 million wasted and millions set to be wasted in coming years. And that's just a few items. Imagine what could be culled from the budget if we had a commission that actually did its job.
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