Flying Blind

Homestead Air Force Base: Hundreds of millions of dollars. An arrogant developer. Nine compliant politicians. A vote taken so late at night you never knew what hit you.

Still, the final draft of the proposed lease was hailed by county staff and the developers as a fair and equitable document for both sides. ("Compared to what?" Katy Sorenson frequently asked. "Since we don't have anything to compare it to, we will never know unless we reject this proposal, go back to an open-planning process, a competitive-bidding process, and do it the right way.")

The South Dade commission meeting, however, brought to light several significant shortcomings. For instance, the lease failed to address the county's "responsible bidders" ordinance, which guarantees union wages for workers. The lease also fails to adequately guarantee that HABDI would develop the base in a timely manner in order to keep up with the demand for new facilities. And there were no firm commitments to the creation of jobs. Commissioner Ferre also wanted to increase the county's options to buy back the lease from Herrera sometime in the future. Under the original draft, the county could take back the land only after 30 years.

In each instance, during sometimes harried discussions in the corners of the school gym, HABDI was pressed into making impromptu concessions. Because of the antipathy among commissioners arising from HABDI's failure to present financial statements, Carlos Herrera was warned by his advisers that if he became too obstinate on these other issues he risked losing the entire lease.

Chairman Art Teele had his own questions about what kind of corporate citizen HABDI might be under the proposed lease. Specifically, Teele wanted to know if HABDI planned to pay taxes to the local school system. The county manager's staff, as well as members of the county attorney's office, seemed shocked; they said they had always envisioned HABDI paying taxes.

But Teele countered that it wasn't clear in the lease. He had reviewed the document with several tax attorneys and it was their opinion the wording was so vague that HABDI could argue it was exempt. Teele then called up HABDI's attorneys. "You can clarify this issue," he said. "Is it your client's intent to pay ad valorem taxes as it relates to the school board?"

After several minutes of conferring with Herrera, Ramon Rasco stepped up to the microphone. "It is our client's intent to comply with the tax laws," Rasco said, "as well as avail itself of whatever opportunities there are under the tax laws. The lease is a complicated document."

"Is it your client's intention," Teele restated slowly, "to pay ad valorem taxes for schools and school education in Dade County under this lease?"

"Will you allow me a minute?" Rasco asked before huddling again with Herrera and the others. As the HABDI group conferred, Teele charged that HABDI had knowingly tried to avoid paying taxes by including vague language in the lease. "This has been artfully drafted as a major piece of litigation that will go on as long as this lease goes on," he declared.

After an exceptionally long pause, and a fair amount of head counting to see who would might go against them if they refused, HABDI agreed to pay school taxes on any improvements they make to the base.

Ten minutes later, at 5:40 in the morning, the Dade County Commission voted to award the lease to HABDI. Nine members of the commission -- Alex Penelas, Maurice Ferre, Natacha Millan, James Burke, Betty Ferguson, Pedro Reboredo, Bruce Kaplan, Gwen Margolis, and Javier Souto -- decided they could approve the agreement now and worry about financial questions later. Burke, in fact, argued that the entire discussion of HABDI's financial strength was unimportant; he referred to it as a "minutia."

On March 5 the commission will convene to take a final vote on the lease. By then it is expected that HABDI officials will have finally provided their financial records and the county manager and his staff will have had time to review them. If the commission decides that HABDI has met all requirements, the lease will become final. But if the commission is unsatisfied, it could vote to reject the contract altogether and open the project to competitive bidding.

"I wonder about the scrutiny of certain commissioners who ask tough questions, don't get answers, and then vote for the lease anyway," says former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez, a candidate for county mayor who opposed the lease. "I don't understand that. It doesn't make any sense to me."

Several commissioners -- Kaplan and Souto in particular -- voted for the deal even though a few hours earlier they argued that to do so would be a dereliction of their duty to the citizens of Dade County. Both had tried unsuccessfully to have the matter deferred until all financial questions were resolved and they could look at the lease as a complete package. But when their motions to defer failed, they relented and cast their votes in favor of the project.

"We were all fighting to stay awake," Souto explained a week after the vote. "I've always been opposed to these long meetings. We don't operate well that late. Our brains don't work too well. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that after a certain number of hours, you can't think straight."

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