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Fifteen years from now, part of downtown Miami could look like Times Square. At least that's what Jacob Sopher believes. And, right or wrong, what he thinks matters because he owns a big chunk of the empty lots in prime locations, including those near the American Airlines Arena and next to the site of the future Performing Arts Center. But for now Sopher, a 67-year-old New Yorker who goes by the name Hank, seems happy taking your ten- and twenty-dollar bills and as many parking operations as he can get his hands on.
For a while Sopher, the president of Quik Park, also seemed to be fine with keeping $600,000 of the city's money. In September officials learned he owed that much in unpaid parking surcharges.
Which was odd. It's not like he couldn't afford it. Just a month earlier Sopher had plunked down $4.7 million for three pieces of property on Northeast Seventh Street in downtown Miami. This is the man who over the past two years has paid nearly $50 million to own what amounts to an array of vacant lots, with the exception of an office building or two. The same man who this past July turned over $7.5 million for the parking garage at 100 United Nations Plaza in Manhattan, the latest addition to his portfolio of about 70 lots and garages in the Big Apple.
And he also had a good reason to behave. Quik Park was poised to make a bid for Miami's municipally run parking facilities, which Mayor Joe Carollo had long wanted to privatize. A referendum on abolishing the independent status of the city's Department of Offstreet Parking, which would open the way for privatization, was to be on the upcoming November ballot. Confident it would pass, the city manager's office had already sent out requests for letters of interest to about 50 companies, including Quik Park. Whoever won control of the city's lots and garages stood to make millions.
But now Sopher was in big trouble with the Miami city commission over a measly $600,000.
At their October 12 meeting, after the commissioners returned from lunch, one of the people they heard from was Fred Bredemeyer, the local manager of a private company called the Parking Network. For a year Bredemeyer's firm had been under contract with the city to collect twenty percent of the revenue that flows into every parking facility in town. The commission authorized the surcharge last year in order to replenish the city's depleted coffers. The city's budget depended on it. Bredemeyer confirmed for the commissioners what he had told a Miami Heraldreporter several days earlier: Quik Park had stopped paying the surcharge in June. Since then he had sent letters and made phone calls to Quik Park's office in South Beach in an effort to collect but received no reply.
Everyone on the dais acted riled. First Commissioner Tomas Regalado wondered why he had to first learn of the problem by reading the Miami Herald."It places an elected official in a very awkward situation," he complained. "Take the mayor. According to the press he didn't know. Had he known he wouldn't have taken 24 checks for his brother's campaign from these people. I mean it's very embarrassing for the mayor and for everybody." The mayor was not present but Regalado was referring to the $14,000 Sopher parked with Frank Carollo's state House campaign, flaunting Florida's $500-per-candidate limit. According to Frank's finance reports, 24 companies with the same address as Quik Park's Manhattan office (425 E. 61st St.) each sent a $500 check. Sopher; his wife, Jonee; and two other relatives also provided $500 apiece.
"We're going to deal with it," City Manager Carlos Gimenez promised Regalado. The manager already had scheduled a meeting for the next day with Quik Park representatives.
When it was Commissioner Johnny Winton's turn to speak, he had harsher words. "I think we ought to use every single resource at our disposal that's written into the law to hammer Quik Park," he said. "Everybody and their grandmother knows I opposed this stupid parking tax in the first place. However, it is in place and it's absolutely unfair for any single entity out there to take advantage of the system and not be paying. Get the tools out and use the tool box on whoever's coming to see you tomorrow."
"I plan to use them all," Gimenez pledged.
Even admirers of Sopher were critical. Commissioner Art Teele echoed Winton, eventually. "This is America," he began. "The whole concept of the rule of law implies that everyone is equal under the rule of law.... Now the problem that we have with Quik Park, in my judgment, is if we allow Quik Park to do this, this becomes carte blanche for everyone to do it." But then Teele seized the opportunity to go to bat for the parking mogul and air one of Sopher's grievances. Teele criticized tax-exempt Miami-Dade Community College for not paying the city a surcharge on the 1100 spaces it leases to the Miami Heat during basketball games. Coincidentally, just two weeks earlier one of Quik Park's attorneys, Santiago Echemendia, had sent a letter to MDCC threatening a lawsuit "to ensure the Heat's use of the parking garage is indeed subject to ad valorem taxation."