Major League Baseball’s Florida Marlins inched closer to a home of their own on Tuesday when the judge presiding over a legal challenge of the financing plan for the team’s new ballpark and other public projects in South Florida ruled that the proposed new stadium serves a “paramount public purpose.”
“The court can only determine whether the stadium, as part of a long-range vision for Miami, as adopted by the commission, satisfies a paramount public purpose with only an incidental private benefit,” Judge Jeri Cohen said. “The answer to that question is clearly yes.”
Cohen’s ruling was on one of the two remaining counts in a lawsuit filed by a wealthy South Florida auto dealer, Norman Braman, who claimed a so-called mega-plan approved by Miami and Miami-Dade County was a misuse of public funds.
The $3 billion plan involves a complex financing scheme to build the Marlins a new stadium and fund the Port of Miami tunnel project and other amenities. It would reallocate tourist development taxes that now secure debt sold to build a performing arts center. The tourist tax would then be used to back debt to build the $515 million ballpark in Miami, while tax increment financing would then be used to pay off the arts center debt.
Cohen’s ruling Tuesday leaves only one legal issue outstanding — whether the plan can use TIF funding. The judge has decided not to rule on that issue until the Florida Supreme Court rules on several outstanding cases that concern whether a public referendum is required before TIF bonds can be sold.
Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria said in a statement that since the stadium project does not rely on TIF funding, he believed the team could “proceed immediately to finalize discussions with the county and the city to put in place all the long-awaited final agreements.”
The Marlins have threatened to leave Florida and have negotiated with city and county officials for years over a new ballpark. Currently, the team plays in the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins Stadium. The Marlins agreement to use Dolphins Stadium expires after the 2010 season.
It has been nearly a year since the state Supreme Court held a rare rehearing on its own opinion in Strand vs. Escambia County, which said that governmental entities in Florida must get voter approval before issuing TIF bonds. Since the rehearing last October, the court has not issued a final opinion in Strand, but it later heard two more TIF cases raising the same referendum questions. The court also has not ruled on those additional TIF cases.