What do you do when the public overwhelmingly votes down an idea to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new courthouse?
If you're the Broward County Commission, you ignore the people and ram it down their throats anyway. After voters roundly rejected a referendum to fund a $450 million courthouse project in 2006, the commissioners have come up with a new idea.
Let's build the courthouse against the wishes of the people!
The plan begins with Mayor Stacy Ritter, a big proponent of a new courthouse. Ritter, always a political diva, hasn't acted so much like a mayor on the issue but more like she were chosen by God to construct a new temple to the judges and lawyers, whether the people want it or not.
Last year, Ritter created her own hand-picked "Broward County Courthouse Task Force" and installed her friend and fellow courthouse backer, Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, as the chairwoman.
Not surprisingly, the task force just came back with exactly what Ritter and Lieberman wanted: a recommendation to build a new courthouse without asking the permission of the public. The task force report also includes a convoluted half-baked plan to pay for it.
And Ritter and Lieberman are real cocky about it too, treating it all as a done deal. But you have to understand that Lieberman might have more than altruistic motives to rush this project forward. In 2005, she and lawyer husband Stuart Michelson, who serves as the Sunrise city attorney, bought an office suite close to the courthouse (at 800 SE Third Avenue) for $1.35 million.
Mr. and Mrs. Michelson (the name Lieberman uses when she moonlights as a lobbyist) bought the office near the top of the real estate boom, and today it's only appraised for a paltry $855,000. So the couple is upside down on the property, which caters to courthouse lawyers (well-known barristers Sheldon Shapiro and George Allen have offices in the building). A new courthouse, obviously, would put a charge into the area and very likely elevate property prices.
You might think Lieberman should avoid voting on courthouse issues. Lieberman thought so too several years ago, when she did abstain from courthouse matters. She and her hubbie used to own land near the courthouse with political consultant Dan Lewis. The partnership went sour and the property was sold, but the new $1.35 million office presents the same conflict.
Only now, instead of abstaining, she's chairing the courthouse task force, driving the discussion on the dais, and voting away.
After Lieberman's pep talk at last week's meeting, the commission rushed a vote to hire engineering firm Spillis Candella to design the new courthouse. The commission, in a 7-2 vote, approved a $13.5 million contract.
It probably didn't hurt that Spillis Candella had hired two of the commission's favorite lobbyists, George Platt and Bernie Friedman. Seems those two fellas get what they want, especially when they're working together.
Ritter and Lieberman say they know how to pay for a "scaled-down," 17-story, $328 million courthouse. And they claim they have done something miraculous: They have figured out how to spend millions without creating a tax burden on the people.
They're starting with $60 million that has been set aside for a new jail. Understand that the cash-strapped county is forcing Sheriff Al Lamberti to cut $50 million from his budget right now and the sheriff has been threatening to shut down the stockade and lay off 177 detention staffers, including about 70 deputies.
Seems like that $60 million might be nice to have during this financial downturn. If the stockade is shut down, for instance, jail overcrowding will become a huge issue. Broward County is, after all, under a federal court order to keep the inmate population under control or face big fines.
But Lieberman and Ritter are treating that $60 million like found money. They're also talking about generating tens of millions by increasing court fees (hey, that's not technically a tax, even though you'll be paying it). And they want to issue new bonds, which will be paid, like everything else, by the taxpayers.
They're calling the new debt "savings." The twisted rationale, which only a highly skilled and shiftless lawyer/politician could ever construct, is that over the next few years, the county is retiring debt that currently costs the county $36 million a year. The debt for the new courthouse, they say, will cost $9 million a year to pay off the new bonds.
They say that means taxpayers are saving $27 million, proving that Ritter and Lieberman, in addition to being godsends, are also voodoo doctors.
The plans are just a scheme proposed by a task force that was driven by the county overlords, who themselves are driven by the downtown landowners and business crowd.
And commissioners talk openly about how they're putting one over on the voters. Just listen to Vice Mayor Ken Keechl, who is, like Lieberman and Ritter, a lawyer.
"I think we should not go to the voters in regard to this courthouse," Keechl said at last week's meeting. "I said it before, I will say it again: I don't think it will pass. Because what the people [in] Broward County have said from the day they elected me until yesterday is, 'I don't want an increased tax burden on me.' ... They just don't want to be taxed. What I found unbelievably fantastic about the [task force] report was you found a way, Commissioner Lieberman, to pay for it without increasing the tax burden on people in Broward County."
Thankfully, while most of the commission was drooling with glee at the unbelievably fantastic Lieberman shuffle, one commissioner called Keechl on his idiocy.
"Explain how this is not going to cost taxpayers any money," Commissioner John Rodstrom challenged Keechl. "Look, you are raising taxes."
Whoa, this wasn't part of the script. Keechl was dumbstruck, so new protector, Ritter, jumped to his side.
"Hold on," she told Rodstrom, who, along with Lois Wexler, voted against the $13.5 million courthouse design contract.
"I need to get it on the record," Rodstrom told her.
Rodstrom never really got an answer to that question, just more of Lieberman's talk about saving taxpayers $27 million by spending $328 million. Rodstrom also raised the issue of the stockade and said the courthouse was indeed going to raise taxes.
"Not really," Ritter said.
"How is it 'not really?'" Rodstrom asked.
"Because," said the mayor.
Thank you, Mayor Ritter. You just turned the county commission into a first-grade classroom. Rodstrom further challenged her.
"I'm going to ask you to trust me," Ritter interjected.
"Come on," Rodstrom responded in disbelief. "This is not the way we do business. 'Trust me.' ... I cannot trust you or the sheriff until I see how the card game will be dealt."
"I am simply asking you to trust me that there is a solution to the stockade issue," Ritter continued. "That's what I am asking you to believe. Because I am telling you that on the dais, and I respectfully suggest that to not trust me would be a disservice to the commission."
There you have it. Ritter wants Rodstrom — and all of us — to set aside serious questions about this farce and have blind faith that it will all work out. This isn't crooked politics. It's religion. And Ritter wants us all to get some, whether we can afford it or not.