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1/26/01 - Miami Herald


By Karl Ross

Outgoing County Manager Merrett Stierheim got a ``parting present'' Thursday from the County Commission when it voted 6-1 to support his call for a public referendum on a billion-dollar bond issue for capital improvements and other unfunded needs.

But the commission didn't go immediately along with Stierheim's proposal to hold the referendum as soon as this fall, saying the date could be set later.

Stierheim's proposed $1.5 billion bond issue is nearly three times the county's largest previous financing package in 1972. But he said the commission could settle on a lesser amount.

``You may choose to say we only want to issue $1 billion or $800 million -- all that's for you to determine,'' Stierheim told the commissioners.

County agency heads have identified more than $3 billion in unfunded capital projects.

Stierheim said the bonds could be repaid without raising property taxes, but urged the commission to act swiftly before new revenues made available by retired debt are ``cannibalized'' by the county's cash-strapped bureaucracy.

Several commissioners said they wanted more details about the strategic planning process that would go into determining what capital projects get funded.

That was the concern of Commissioner Miriam Alonso, the lone dissenter.

``We have to feel that same level of confidence that you have to get behind this proposal,'' Alonso said.

Stierheim replied: ``Can you give me a parting present?''

Alonso agreed to ``keep an open mind.''

Stierheim, who ends his second stint as county manager Feb. 14, issued a challenge to commissioners to think long-term.

``Each one of you has a vision of what the county could be like, not just in terms of physical improvements and infrastructure,'' Stierheim said.

Stierheim said the funds could be put to use to meet goals such as cutting teen pregnancies 50 percent.

He also said they could finance improvements to inner-city infrastructure that would encourage ``in-fill'' development instead of new suburban subdivisions.

``I'd like to remind you that we have a tremendous flooding problem,'' said Commission Chairwoman Gwen Margolis, citing another potential use of bond proceeds.

The county manager's office has 60 days to return to the commission with a ``game plan'' outlining how to jump-start the planning process, said George Burgess, executive assistant to Stierheim.

After the vote, Stierheim recalled that when he first resigned as county manager in 1986, he called for a new bond issue in his final memo to the commission.

``Of course that was 15 years ago,'' Stierheim said. ``The needs are even greater today, and it takes years and years to build infrastructure.''