Volsky on CRACK IN CORAL GABLES MUSEUM

CRACK IN  CORAL GABLES MUSEUM

By George Volsky

When the Coral Gables Museum was inaugurated  last week, a structural crack was detected in the recently reconstructed and expanded building. City engineers, apprised of the discovery are investigating the cause and extent of the problem. According to several architects and engineers with long experience in the building sector, the flaw could be serious and is so elementary that it defies comprehension why and how it had originated.

The embarrassing discovery has reportedly shaken the museum’s administration. Other reports indicate that there might be other structural problems in the museum, the property of  Coral Gables and administered by a private not-for-profit entity under a contract with the city.

The crack, clearly visible on the wall, marks a place where the museum’s original old  building, the fire and police station constructed  in the 1930s, joins an addition on its northern side. The addition reminds artists of an inflated, lifeless  Roman-temple, with more than a touch of Botero, which, because of its disproportionally large size,  overwhelms and  detracts from the charm of the slender and graceful original edifice.

“We shall investigate the problem to discover what had happened and see what to do next.” said Glenn Kephart, director of the Public Works department. Kephart refusing to speculate on what might have caused the crack. His reticence was probably justified by the fact that while Public Works routinely normally supervises work on all city properties, and has trained experts for it, its personnel was purposely kept away from the museum project.  The supervision of the museum $5.9 million job, which started about four years ago, was placed by the then city manager David Brown entirely in the hands of Kara Kautz, a friend of the family of former mayor Don Slesnick,  whom Brown had recently hired even though she didn’t have city-required qualification to be the city’s Historic Preservation Officer.  It was Kautz who had certified the completion of each of the project’s construction stages and under her signature, the developer and the architect, Jorge Hernandez, were paid by the city.

For  construction experts the origin of the crack isn’t  a mystery. “Whenever an old building joins a new one professional builders place  special flexible expansion devises between the two,” one architect said. “Even a novice constructor, let alone a first year architecture student, knows that foundations of an old building are set, while those of a new taka a long time to firm up. What has happened here is that recent heavy rains made ground under the new building softer, resulting in its hair-like movement, not affecting the 75-year-old police station. The city should open the whole crack area and install an expansion joint to prevent a more serious problems and a permanent water leak.”

According to a Public Works official, who asked that his name be unmentioned because he was not authorized to speak for the department, during the museum construction, the builder poured tons of cement over a main gas line, making it very difficult to access. The gas company, which found out the error protested, stating it was a serious code violation. But according to the official,  Kautz, her supervisor Dona  Spain, architect Hernandez and the construction company decided not to do anything because removing a huge slab of cement over the gas line would be very costly and would cause considerable delays in the project’s construction.

Interestingly, for the museum inauguration its management printed a  catalog, called “Creating The Dream.” Several pages of the publication include pictures of the cleanly scrubbed building as it was a year ago, when the  reconstruction terminated. But today the whole building already  looks shabby and worn-out and, according to one prestigious resident, with a  grimy if not outright dirty northern side of its tower. “Every time I look at it,” the resident said, “ I am more convinced that it  shames the City Beautiful and maybe enen is a bad augury for the museum’s future.”

Volsky on “Coral Gables Expects to Sue Biltmore”

GEORGE VOLSKY

CORAL GABLES EXPECTS TO SUE BILTMORE

After almost three years of secret and apparently unsuccessful discussions with the Biltmore’s  managing company over its failure to pay Coral Gables the hotel’s rent, the city attorney’s office says, for the first time, that the city is “in anticipation” of litigating the thorny multimillion debt.

According to incomplete city records, the Seaway Corporation, which has been operating the Biltmore for decades, owes Coral Gables more than $6 million, not counting interests customary charged in prolonged non-payment cases. Seaway disputes that total stating that it had spent more than twice on the hotel’s historic preservation, the work it contends was supposed to have been done by the city. Coral Gables, in turn, states that under its management contract with Seaway, that company is obliged to fund hotel preservation.

The tactical option of taking Seaway to court was mentioned in a letter  dated July 12, 2011. Singed by Assistant City Attorney Lourdes Alsonsin, it  was in response to my June 21, 2011 freedom of information request  for documents and emails pertaining to the city-Seaway discussions. These talks, privy to the five members of the City Commission, the city manager and the city attorney, have been kept secret from the residents and taxpayers of Coral Gables.

“On June 21, 2001, you requested a document written by Elizabeth Hernandez (who resigned Dec. 20, 2009 as city attorney but continues to be paid by Coral Gables as its legal consultant) regarding the public not being informed of discussions by the Commissioners regarding the Biltmore or an audit by Price Waterhouse Coopers, LLP. There is correspondence from Ms. Hernandez dated March 10, 2011 which discusses a report. This correspondence is exempt from release at this time pursuant to the Public Record Act. In particular, Florida Statutes, Section 119.07 (1)(d) provides that documents reflecting a mental impression, conclusion, litigation strategy or legal theory prepared by the attorney or the agency and was prepared exclusively… in anticipation of litigation is exempt from disclosure until the conclusion of the litigation. As such, the correspondence dated March 10, 2011 shall be available to the public upon termination of any possible litigation,” Alfonsin wrote.  (The  last sentence of the letter is odd, one legal expert said, explaining that in filing a lawsuit against Seaway, the city would have to disclose its legal arguments for financial redress.)

City Attorney Craig Leen, stating that so far he has not asked the commission’s ascent to initiate a lawsuit against Seaway, said that   Alfonsin’s use of the words “in anticipation of litigation” meant that his office “expected” the Biltmore case be decided by the courts. (According to various dictionaries, “in anticipation” also means “looking forward to.”)

Asked for comments, City Manager Patrick Salerno replied he was not authorized, presumably by the city legal office, to speak about the Coral Gables-Biltmore discussions.  The same was the answer of Mayor James Cases. During his election campaign, Cason had publicly  chided former mayor Don Slesnick for not acknowledging  that the Biltmore managers  were not paying their rent and for doing  nothing about it.

Indeed, many residents baffled why Hernandez invoked a Florida law to throw a mantle on secrecy over the Biltmore case, which is  similar to others being dealt with by the city in full sunshine.  For decades, Coral Gables as a landlord has confronted tenants who, like Seaway, had failed to fulfill their financial and other obligations under mutually agreed contacts. All landlord-tenant problems – except the Biltmore’s – have been and are being dealt with and resolved in open, documented negotiations. Following the accepted real estate sector legal procedure, delinquent tenants are given a written notice to pay or vacate the premises. Those who refuse to do so, regardless of the reason, are taken to court to be evicted, a legal action previously authorized by the city commission in an open session.

Thus on the face of it, the city-Seaway discussions do not concern “litigation strategy or legal theory,” or national security; they are only about money, in the simple Shakespearean phrase: “to pay or not to pay that is the question.” And PriceWaterhouseCoopers was retained, on January 25, 2010, at a very high fee,  to inform the city and its taxpayers about the state of the Biltmore operations, not what to do about the debt, let alone whether to litigate it.

Therefore, some knowledgeable residents are expressing concern about the Biltmore-Coral Gables secrecy that Hernandez in effect has only recommended  – and which Leen does not have to agree to. They believe that the secrecy’s real reason could be keep hidden some still undisclosed aspects of business and personal relations between Seaway on the one hand and Slesnick, former city manager David Brown and their close ally Hernandez on the other.

It appears, for examples, that the Slesnick-Brown administration strangely lacked alacrity in confronting the Biltmore’s non-payment issue. Prior to the last April election, a mayoral candidate, Coral Gables attorney Tom Korge challenged Slesnick to explain why he, Brown and Hernandez for months did not respond to urgent entreaties for a meeting by the Seaway attorney Danny Ponce. While Biltmore was still paying its rent, Ponce asked the trio to consider a revision of the hotel rent contract  because Seaway had difficulty fulfilling it.

Only after Slesnick, Brown and Hernandez  showed no interest to talk to Seaway, the Biltmore managing company stopped paying rent. Korge repeated his charge, which he said was based on a statement by Ponce,  during two pre-lection debates with Slesnick. The former mayor  ignored Korge’s challenge; he neither denied nor explained his inaction.

Mayor Cason’s Promises–How Is He Doing?

I would say that Mayor has a way to go in meeting his promises on transparency, controlling pension benefits, controlling millage rates, city efficiencies, having open management, and making suggestions (hopefully not in secret).

We will see if this government is more than cutting ribbons and letters to new residents.

MY 10 PROMISES TO YOU

  1. I will be a full time Mayor.
  2. I will work in the best interests of the citizens of Coral Gables and be respectful of their concerns.
  3. I will support transparency of City Hall’s government.
  4. I will control pension liabilities moving forward in order to reduce Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liabilities. (UAAL)
  5. I will avoid conflicts of interests and favoritism.
  6. I will fight to keep millage rates low.
  7. I will seek greater efficiencies in City management and not tolerate waste, fraud, mismanagement and improper employee conduct.
  8. I will question all aspects of current operations and suggest alternatives.
  9. I will make sure that management keeps the commission well informed on: new or change in ordinances, issues and contracts that will be presented before the commission and offer ample time for discussion before voting is implemented.
  10. I will be an active Ambassador for our City and foster an open and collegial environment for current residents, business owners and visitors.
(Quoted from Mayor Cason’s campaign literature and website.)

Just Like The City Manager Of Coral Gables

The city manager planned–as was bought into later by the city commissioners (except one)–and hid his designs for a huge post-election investment program and, and along with one commissioner (real estate broker and banker), distorted the real cost of the financing the program by stating that since the debt payments had been budgeted, there is no additional cost to the city of the refinancing.

A first year economics student at UM can tell you that this is pure baloney.

Indifference to public opinion in Miami-Dade, including Coral Gables, is because of voter indifference and politicians’ dislike for good, transparent and participatory government.

Of course neither the White House nor congressional leadership has shown the slightest interest in keeping the American people informed about any step of this process, and they have evinced even less interest in reflecting the values and opinions of the American people. Public opinion counts for almost nothing these days in guiding public policy.

via Jeffrey Sachs: Restoring American Democracy.

Coral Gables Debt Surge–Take Note, Interest Rates Will Stay Low

One justification for the Debt Surge in Coral Gables for its so-called Renaissance is that the city will lose a window opportunity of low interest rates.  This is nonsensical since interest will stay low for a long time, and the dange of overspending on the Renaissance projects is far greater that the rush to refinance now.

The following is from today’s Federal Reserve statement:

To promote the ongoing economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate, the Committee decided today to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent.  The Committee continues to anticipate that economic conditions–including low rates of resource utilization and a subdued outlook for inflation over the medium run–are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate for an extended period.

via FRB: Press Release–FOMC statement–June 22, 2011.