BRADENTON, Fla. - Miami-Dade County plans to ask voters to approve up to $393 million in general obligation bonds to repair the county's 90-year-old civil courthouse and build a replacement facility.

At the same time, commissioners said they would look for alternative revenues for those capital needs, including asking state legislators to allow an increase in court filing fees.

The board considered various amounts to issue, including $540 million recommended by staff that included a refinancing element, but finally settled on $393 million at a Sept. 3 meeting.

"We need to work with Tallahassee for a filing fee increase…and to secure other funding sources so that we don't have to go the top [amount] for the bonding," said commission chairwoman Rebeca Sosa.

The GO bond request will appear on the Nov. 4 general election ballot, but the wording will differ from past referendums in which voters have approved new debt without fully understanding that it could increase their property taxes, according to commissioners.

Past ballots have stated that GO bonds would be secured with ad valorem taxes, a description that some voters did not understand in terms of a tax increase, said commissioners.

They cited criticism of the $1.2 billion in GOs approved in 2012 for the Miami-Dade County School District's capital needs, and $830 million authorized for the public Jackson Health System last year.

The upcoming referendum language should be written at a second-grade reading level, "to make sure no one comes back and tells me the question is too confusing," Sosa said.

The November ballot will still use the term ad valorem taxes, but it will also state that the $393 million of GO bonds will be paid with taxes derived from the assessed value of property in the county, "potentially increasing property taxes."

Supporters of the courthouse bond issue are working with the business and legal community to raise funds for an "effective marketing plan," Joseph Serota, an attorney at Weiss Serota Helfman Pastoriza Cole & Boniske PL, told commissioners.

When asked by The Bond Buyer if the commission's new ballot language will make it more difficult to sell the public on the bond issue, Serota said, "Parts of it may make it easier to sell, and other parts will be challenging."

Bond supporters most likely won't have a hard time describing the need for the financing based on comments at the Sept. 3 commission meeting.

The existing courthouse is "old, broken and falling down," said Chief Judge Bertila Soto.

Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade clerk of the courts, said his 260 employees "ought to be getting hazard pay."

"We ask jurors to serve…and what they come to is squalor," said State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle.

Others spoke about termites and mildew, and that some employees have been moved due to elevated levels of carbon dioxide. One speaker said the courthouse is crumbling, and that more than half of its foundation is compromised by columns that have exposed steel.

If passed, the bond issue will provide $25 million for emergency repairs necessary to keep the existing courthouse open while the new courthouse is constructed with the remaining bond proceeds.

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