Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen once said this about the federal budget: “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” Although Senator Dirksen died in 1969, his spirit can be found alive and well in the City of Coral Gables government.
The City Beautiful has a problem with all of its three present firehouses. The first, located on Salzedo Street, is so decrepit that equipment is kept outside to keep it from being damaged.
Fire Station 2, located on South Dixie Highway south of Le Jeune Road, is in such a sad state of disrepair that firefighters bunk out in trailers in the parking lot. The 1960s complex needs to be razed and rebuilt.
Fire Station 3, tucked just off the fork in the road where Old Cutler Road meets Red Road, was built in 1993, but has been plagued with mold that the City can’t seem to eradicate.
You’d think the Coral Gables would have its hands full trying to repair or replace these structures, right?
The City has approved acquiring property for a fourth firehouse. This one would be located at 7000 Old Cutler Road, right on Cocoplum Circle, where Sunset Drive, Old Cutler, and Le Jeune Road meet.
The site currently has a house on it, built in 1936. The information the City puts out about the need to acquire the property is not clear. On the one hand, the house is old and needs to be torn down. On the other hand, the house is going to be renovated and turned into the new firehouse. So, the house can’t be saved, but it will be saved.
When there’s a proposal to make a significant change in a property’s use, the property owner is usually required to get the agreement of adjoining landowners or at least give them direct notice and an opportunity to be heard.
I’ve been told by local homeowners that the City never plastered their neighborhood with notices or told them of its plans. Apparently, when the City wants to make the change to a property’s use, the rules are different.
Anyone who has driven through Cocoplum Circle during morning and evening rush hours knows that that traffic backs up on Old Cutler, Sunset, and Le Jeune. Getting a firetruck out of there and onto the road will be dicey for a good part of the day. Old Cutler is also lined with massive banyan trees that will make it difficult for cars to pull over to let the firetruck through.
It would have been nice to see an architectural rendering of the City’s plans. It proposes keeping one ladder truck there, bumping that up to two trucks later.
Some of the logistical questions that are being ignored are whether the trucks will enter the road directly into Cocoplum Circle or they have to make a turn north or south on Old Cutler. During rush hour, that can make a difference. Does the site, as large as it is, have the room for the trucks to turn around on the property or will traffic have to be stopped while the trucks back up into the property? Will the firetrucks leave with sirens wailing lights flashing at all hours of the day and night and how will that affect adjoining properties?
No one knows.
The most disturbing thing about the process has been the price that the City is willing to pay. Appraisals put the value of the property, including the house, at $1.3 million to $3.9 million, depending on whether the property will be used as a residence or as a commercial property. Since the property is zoned single family residential, putting up a 7-Eleven or a small office tower is out of the question.
With that in mind, you’d think the City would be paying in the neighborhood of $1.3 million, right?
Nope. The City priced itself out of that neighborhood. The Property Advisory Board recommended paying no more than $3 million for it. And that was too generous. But the Mayor and City Commissioners put $4 million on the table with no good explanation.
But the costs don’t end there. There’s no inkling of what it will cost to renovate the house and to build a garage big enough to hold two ladder trucks, not to mention paving the yard into a parking lot for the fire crew that will man the station. Building it out as a fire station could cost millions more. There’s been no discussion of where that money will come from.
The City’s reasoning for overpaying the present owner is that it can qualify for a $1.5 million state grant and could divert $2.3 million in impact fees to cover the purchase, meaning that they’d only have to tap the General Capital Improvement for $200,000. I guess the City figures that it can grossly overpay because it’s not real money.
The City never considered using eminent domain and letting a circuit court judge decide the price for the property. It could have used the appraisals to set a fair price and let the owner come and fight for a higher amount.
Instead, it just kept putting stacks of hundreds on the bargaining table. The price amounts to $1,183 a square foot, the highest price ever paid for a non-waterfront house in Coral Gables.
For the property owner, the $4 million price tag is a windfall. He bought the house in 1978 for $80,000, meaning he’ll walk away with a profit of over $3.9 million. He’s the only one in Coral Gables who’s getting a good deal on this.
The lesson for Coral Gables taxpayers? Your Mayor, Commissioners, City Manager, and Fire Chief are all little Everett Dirksens. A million here, two million there — just don’t worry about it because it’s not real money.
Note: The City Commission will be taking up this purchase at its November 13, 2018 meeting, which starts at 9:00 a.m. in Chambers at 405 Biltmore Way, Coral Gables, FL 33134. Make your voice heard. Or you can call the Mayor and Commissioners at:
Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli 305-460-5220
Vice Mayor Frank C. Quesada 305-460-5323
Commissioner Patricia Keon 305-460-5223
Commissioner Vince Lago 305-460-5323
Commissioner Michael Mena 305-460-5326