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Potential new Broward County Government Center


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County studies $400 million vote

By Buddy Nevins

Political Writer

Posted December 22 2004

Broward County may ask voters in March to approve an estimated $400 million bond issue to build everything from new fire stations and a modernistic high-rise government center to a shelter for the treatment of the mentally ill.

County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, Sheriff Ken Jenne and their staffs are working out details of the bond issue. How much it will cost and exactly what it will build are still being discussed, Desjarlais said Tuesday.

"These are all things we will have to do anyway," Desjarlais said. "This would be a way to pay for it."

Property owners would pay off the bond and interest over a period of up to 30 years through property taxes.

In the past five years, the county government has issued bonds to pay for dozens of infrastructure improvements and open space purchases. County voters approved $140 million in bonds in 1999 for new libraries and $400 million in bonds a year later for park improvements and land preservation.

Desjarlais said March 8 is being considered because voters may be asked on that date to approve slot machines in dog and horse tracks and at Dania Jai Alai. There is no other countywide election scheduled until fall 2006.

County officials are heartened by the results of bond issue referendums nationwide in November 2004. Of the bond elections tracked by The Bond Buyer, voters approved more than 90 percent of the money requested nationwide and 99.8 percent in Florida.

"If we are going to do it, it appears this is the time," Desjarlais said.

Desjarlais said he hopes to present the specifics of the bond issue to the now-vacationing County Commission by its next meeting Jan. 11.

But approval by the County Commission is far from a sure bet. Although most county commissioners could not be reached for comment despite messages left on their cell phones or at home, Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs on Tuesday was cool to the idea.

Jacobs said she would much prefer selling bonds to pay for light rail transportation to take the burden off the roads, but only after there is time for studies to show where they should be built.

"What's the rush? Does anybody do their best job when rushed?" Jacobs said.

The most controversial part of the bond issue will be the new government center to house the county's administrative functions. The building and a parking garage could cost up to $124 million.

The county has operated for two decades out of an aging former Burdines department store on Andrews Avenue, which county commissioners call a rabbit warren of makeshift partitions, inadequate space, and antiquated electrical and telecommunication wiring.

The idea of paying for a government center with a bond issue began a month ago when plans began to crumble to have developers build the building for free in return for development rights on the county's 10 acres of land in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

"The numbers weren't there. It didn't make financial sense," County Commissioner John Rodstrom said. "By using a bond, we could start building something within a year."

One idea being considered would locate the new government center north of West Broward Boulevard on the site of the county bus depot and allow the federal government to build a courthouse on the site of the current Government Center. Chief U.S. District Judge William Zloch has threatened to pull the courthouse out of Fort Lauderdale and move to the suburbs unless space can be found to build a new one.

Key to the bond issue will be Jenne, because police and fire improvements are easier to sell to voters than a parking garage and a government center, Desjarlais said.

Among the improvements being discussed with Jenne are new fire stations; a mental health building probably to be operated by one of Broward's two public health and hospital care districts; a new, centralized center to process those arrested and replace the overtaxed booking area in the central jail; and a law enforcement training center that could be used by all agencies, county officials said.

Jenne also may ask for added parking at his headquarters on West Broward Boulevard because spaces have been in short supply since he took over the county's fire-rescue functions in October 2003.

Jenne could not be reached for comment, despite three messages left with two of his spokespeople.

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