Owe, Owe, Owe Your Boat

Miami City Manager Cesar Odio loves rowing. Almost every Saturday he can be seen in the waters off Virginia Key, arching his back and timing his stroke in rhythmic bursts of intensity. He loves rowing so much that he founded a rowing club. He loves rowing so much that he bought an $85 rowing watch on his city-issue credit card and only made reimbursement after the Miami Herald brought the purchase to the public's attention.

That shiny watch, which Odio wears on his left arm, now marks the menacing accumulation of debt. Every second that passes, every turn of the minute hand, represents more interest (currently pegged at eighteen percent) the Miami Rowing Club must pay on the $97,563.59 in back taxes it owes Dade County, a debt that has been accruing since 1985. Its 1994 taxes of $9925, due this past week, were not paid.

"It's an amazing thing," says Eduardo Rodriguez, director of the city's Office of Asset Management and Capital Improvements, commenting on the fact that Odio's club has become a scofflaw on such a grand scale.

It is Rodriguez (as opposed to some county bureaucrat) who is pushing hardest for the tax collection. When he became asset manager a year ago, Rodriguez discovered that about twenty nonprofit clubs that lease land from the city were delinquent in paying their county taxes. The clubs were flouting a Florida Supreme Court ruling eliminating their tax-exempt status. (The ruling, on a suit filed against a Tallahassee golf club, was retroactive to 1985.) Rodriguez realized that if the taxes weren't paid, his financially strapped city eventually would be stuck with the tab.

So he shook the clubs down.
The Miami Outboard Club paid up. The Miami Yacht Club paid up. Every club in the city paid up, in fact, except two. One, the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, has mounted a legal challenge to the Supreme Court's decision. The other, the Miami Rowing Club, simply hasn't paid.

Cesar Odio would not comment for this article. Though the club has held fundraising parties, formed a tax-collection steering committee, and made the payment of its debts a top priority, many of its members contend that the tax is both unfair and an unbearable burden. The city profits from the visitors who attend club regattas but gives back little support, they say. In this context, the seeking of back taxes is an act bordering on harassment. "We have to pay for the boats and transportation and recruit sponsors, and the city never pays for that. Instead they ask for taxes," says Ernesto Castro, a former club president.

Odio and other Cuban rowers founded the club in 1974 at Blue Lagoon Lake near Miami International Airport. At the time, Miami's two other rowing clubs, the Big Five Club and the Cuban Rowing Academy, were in decline. In 1980, after the Big Five folded, the Miami Rowing Club moved onto city property on the Rickenbacker Causeway.

The lone building on the thin plot of land sandwiched between Mast Academy and the disintegrating gray shell of the Miami Marine Stadium is a green, two-story boathouse the club built in 1985. On the top floor is a small, modern gym and a ballroom nice enough for the occasional wedding party. Oars painted with the colors of various Cuban rowing clubs line the ballroom walls. In homage to the club's Cuban roots, a crude oar hangs prominently over a parquet dance floor.

"That's an oar from a rafter," club member Jose Mendosa says proudly. "We consider that the best one."

Below the ballroom are the boats. Eight-man shells, single shells, and kayaks stacked high to the ceiling. White, red, blue, and sometimes yellow like the bananas they vaguely resemble. Several are emblazoned with the names of members who donated extra money at a spring tax fundraiser. In the back of the boathouse, on an open-air porch overlooking a yard strewn with old shells, are more sets of barbells.

The club is busiest in the mornings. Older members stop by for a row and a circuit of weights before a shower and a day at the office. At dusk, as the sun sets on Key Biscayne, the club is awash with teenagers. The boys' varsity team won the state title this year and is about to travel to Georgia for the nationals. It's the first time in six years that the club has qualified a team.

A gaggle of parents sit on a weathered picnic bench near the floating tires from which the shells are launched. Watching the varsity team grind out four ten-minute sets of constant power, they take issue with the Supreme Court ruling, which states that the club is too exclusive to maintain tax-free status. The club is open to the public, they insist. It hosts public rowing regattas A including the 1990 U.S. Rowing Masters Championships A that bring thousands of visitors to town. Once a year the club teaches rowing to inner-city children. Membership is not even required, points out Jose Mendosa; nonmembers are welcome to use the shells for a daily fee. Membership is just an option open to anyone enthusiastic about the sport.

"I haven't seen anybody rejected yet," Mendosa says of the membership process, which is overseen by a committee. "If you come down here from another state, or if you are here on vacation, they'll let you row. If you don't have the initiation fee, they'll spread the payments out over a few months. It's not tough to get in. We want as many people as possible to come and row."

The county argues -- and the Florida Supreme Court agrees -- that no matter how much good work the club does, it is still exclusive. The club pool, for instance, is not open to the general public. A piece of paper taped to one of the clubhouse's glass doors states that the gym is for members only. "It is our position that it is a private club," says Frank Jacobs, a Dade County assistant property appraiser.

Supporters say that even with a tax exemption, the club would have little money to meet its needs. The only source of revenue consists of dues paid by the club's 400 members. (Members over age 30 pay $40 a month. Members between 20 and 30 pay half that. High school students row for free.) A staggered initiation fee structure ranges from $250 to $1000. It doesn't amount to sufficient funding for the club to exist on its own, some members feel. "It's impossible for a club like ours to run without help from the city," says Ernesto Castro, implying that if the taxes are not waived, the club will fold.

Eduardo Rodriguez points out that other clubs throughout the city were able to carry the increased burden. Just to pay the bill, each of the 428 members of the Miami Outboard Club had to chip in an extra $100. Necessary repairs to the club's broken air conditioner were delayed until more money could be raised. "I think it's no fair that you have to pay the rent to the city and on top of that there is taxes," says outboard club commodore Sergio Perez. "But it's the law. You have to obey the law."

The rowing club, leaders of some other clubs argue, has it even easier than most. The rowers only pay $100 in annual rent for the land. The outboard club and the Miami Yacht Club, by contrast, pay at least $13,000 annually in rent, an amount both clubs expect will soon double.

The rowing club's current twenty-year lease will expire with the millennium. The club wants very much to extend the lease another twenty years. If it isn't extended, the boathouse and the pool will be forfeited to the city along with the property. Club treasurer Howard Kosowsky has been told by Rodriguez that the lease will not be renewed if the debt is not erased.

Rodriguez has no desire to enforce the death penalty, but he has no desire to inherit the club's debts, either. "Let's be practical," he says. "If I take the property now, I'm going to have to pay $100,000. That's the reality."

Kosowsky and Rodriguez met this past week, on the day the club's 1994 taxes were due. While Kosowsky admits the club didn't meet the 1994 deadline, it did pay off $14,000 in back taxes, dropping its delinquent balance below the six-figure mark.

"We're making an effort and trying to run a fiscally solvent club," Kosowsky says. "We're working on it and we're trying to do it, but it's a difficult process.

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Robert Andrew Powell