News: MB Taxpayers Association Meeting

By Anne Newport Royal

With the elections barely 12 hours over, most of the politically aware on Miami Beach were still asleep in their beds and not at the monthly meeting of the Miami Beach Taxpayers Association.  Russell Galbut’s pop-up  political forum and free continental breakfast at the Shelborne Hotel on Collins Avenue had easily attracted twice as many residents at 8:30 a.m. before.  The group has been meeting the first Wednesday morning of the month for the past three months

Less than 50 showed up last Wednesday morning.

Galbut made the apologies for those not in the room, “People worked hard yesterday, at the polls all day,” he said, while thanking the Mayor and Commissioner Weithorn for being on the dais, “It’s the nature of elections.  One person wins one looses.”

Bower, appearing fresh and bright after easing to victory for a third and final two-year term thanked “all of you for being out there and voting.”  Then she turned to Weithorn and thanked her for the coordinated efforts in their campaign, “It was very nice working with you,” she said nodding to the other woman on the Commission, “On the campaign. We worked together like we work together in the Commission.”

Weithorn had denied any linkage between her re election campaign and the Mayors, even though records show they shared the same consultant, Randall Hilliard, and received identical contributions from several employee unions, PAC’s and lawyers and lobbyists wives.

Weithorn, in turn thanked her husband, who the ailing Weithorn admitted, “wrote most of my emails that you all got at four in the morning.” Weithorn was visibly drawn after spending yesterday meeting voters at the polls.

Weithorn outlined her big three issues for her next four year term: Pension Reform, “which can not wait” she said, “financing the Convention Center and Urban Beach Weekend.”

Bower’s biggest issue continues to be the Convention Center, stating, “we need to figure out what is best for us here.  It’s early here.”  The one thing she did say was of primary importance is “that a convention center should be regional and it should be in Miami Beach.”

Weithorn took the podium, promising to “stand as long as I can until I get tired,” and began by saying she wants to help educate on the complex topic of pensions.  “How many of you had been to my Budget Boot Camp?  Show of hands? I want to do something like that.”

Then she started asking more questions, “How many of you know that our employees don’t pay into Social Security?  How many of you know the difference between a defined benefit and defined contribution plan? How many of you know what an unfunded pension liability is?  How many of you know the City has three different pension plans?”  The show of hands diminishes each time.  “How many of you understand actuarial value tables?”

The hands were down to one.

“Well, that’s good, because I don’t,” she admitted. “We have a lot of work to do, we don’t even know the basic terminology.”

She directed those in the room to turn their attention to the public safety pension plans, which consume the most money.  When pressed as to why the elected officials do not have more control over those costs, she blamed it on past politicians because those benefits are collectively bargained into union contracts.

She wants to offer unions a chance to determine where the cuts will occur.

Jared Galbut suggested that The City take a more hard-lined approach, the way South Miami has recently, in moving away from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.  Weithorn said the cost of terminating the current plan and moving to another would be high, as the City would have to fund all of the current unfunded liability by itself, through a pension bond.

“Does anybody want to pay for that?” she asked.

She stated that the problems go back to decisions made 10 and 15 years ago, without mentioning that all union contracts were renegotiated as recently as three years ago.

“Don’t blame us,” she said.

Realtor Lyle Stern offered the option of smaller government through privatization of some services as a solution.  “You can’t privatize public safety,” replied Weithorn.  “The general employees pensions are not the problem,” and those roles would be the only ones appropriate for outsourcing.

“Would moving to the State Retirement System help us?” asked David Kelsey, moderator of the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club. “To move to FRS would require terminating the currents plans.  I can fix that but that costs money,” Weithorn responded.

Collins Park Neighborhood Association’s Ray Breslin suggested, “removing overtime from the calculation” and Weithorn agreed that that, and other moves like using the last seven years of  average salary history instead of the last two would help ease the ultimate burden on the taxpayers.

Harry Cherry wanted to make sick leave and vacation time earned “use or loose” to avoid large, lump-sum payouts.  Attorney Rick Kendle wanted to know what “else we can do to help you?”

“I want to teach you all what I just summarized so you can help us,” responded Weithorn.

Weithorn, Bower and their entourages left to attend the swearing in ceremonies at City Hall, while Realtor Stern took to the podium to outline what the City of Miami Beach was facing in the way of development across the Bay.

He laid out the numbers.  The Genting proposal, which is only one of two destination resorts envisioned for the City of Miami, is suggesting building 4 hotels on the Miami Herald waterfront site containing 5,200 hotel rooms. The Bellagio in Las Vegas has 3, 933 rooms in two hotels, while the MGM Las Vegas has 5,044 rooms in four hotels.  Florida’s largest hotels currently are in Orlando, with Disney’s Port Orleans topping the chart with 3, 056 rooms.

The three largest hotels in New York City, the NY Hilton, Marriot Marquis and Sheraton NY combine to offer 5,680 rooms in those three hotels.

In comparison, the Fontainebleau contains 1.504 rooms.

Genting wants 50 plus separate restaurants and over 60 luxury retail shoppes to keep their guests busy.  The Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas offers 19 restaurants in the Venetian and 87 shops in the Palazzo to serve the guests in their combined 7, 128 rooms

The Fontainebleau has four boutiques and a dozen different restaurants.

The largest Hilton in the world is located in Las Vegas and it houses 2,956 rooms plus 305 suites and features a 74,000 square foot casino.

Genting proposes 800,000 square feet of gaming on two floors.

And while Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas goes over the top with 500,000 square feet of convention and meeting space plus an indoor rainforest and 53-foot long saltwater aquarium on its 85 acre site, Genting hopes to squeeze in 750,000 square feet of convention and meeting space plus a 200,000 square foot ballroom on it’s 13.9 acres.

“We need to immediately express our concern to the project,” Stern suggested, “The pension discussion always assumes the revenue in the City goes up.”

Stern noted that the Herald site will be developed no matter who happens with the gaming bill working its way through Tallahassee, perhaps as a destination resort geared to a land experience for Norwegian Cruise Lines passengers.  Combine that with other entertainment venues are on the way for mainland Miami including two “luxury movie theatres”, more high end shopping and a new jai lai fronton, Stern issued a stark warning to few taxpayers left in the room that did not scurry out with the elected officials.

“This project is an imminent threat regardless of the gambling.”

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