Homestead City Council met Wednesday March 17 and accepted over $6.57 million in total grants to the City for various long-term projects.
Two ‘facility hardening’ grants from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity provided $2.7 million for back-up generators at the wastewater treatment plant and $1.67 million for the water treatment facility.
An additional FEMA grant delivered $2.2 million to replace 1560 above-ground wood utility poles in the southwest neighborhood.
Councilmember Sean Fletcher said, “There is federal money due to come to the City through the American Rescue plan, as much as $21 million although the terms of the COVID support is still uncertain.”
That specific provision of the federal legislation for $350 billion in support to states and municipalities is being challenged constitutionally by 21 Attorneys General thus delaying implementation of those monetary grants.
Council spent time discussing a proposal by local early learning center Le Jardin to contract for classroom space at the former YMCA site at Harris Field. Built with federal monies after Hurricane Andrew, the building is considered part of the park so usage is restricted. City Manager Cate McCaffrey said staff was seeking direction from Council, but any lease negotiated for space must come back to Council for approval.
Le Jardin’s proposal dated January 21 offered to lease space in two attached buildings facing east. The company is a 501(c) (3) non-profit founded in 1986 providing early learning services to children from birth to five years old. Its website says it currently provides programs for over 800 children from families below federal poverty guidelines.
Councilmember Erica Avila thought temporary use of the facility space was alright but suggested an RFP from the wider community for other uses for the building, with or without the classroom space.
“Le Jardin is an excellent organization providing excellent services to our community over a long period of time,” said Councilmember Stephan Shelley. “But we have a unique opportunity to see what the property can be used for; to see what the market might hold.
Perhaps a for-profit developer might come in and create many jobs for the community.”
The City Manager explained the challenge that if an RFP was ever to be done to solicit bids on the building, it was inappropriate to state another party’s terms publicly. She agreed with Councilmember Shelley that the proposal was for a term of years.
The Manager also explained that the west side of the building – the locker rooms, a large pool and the gym building were in bad shape from neglected maintenance. Staff was struggling to spend a $175,000 grant on the locker room area, which is not air conditioned, before its September expiration. McCaffrey said the problem is the money is likely insufficient to renovate just that piece of the building.
Councilmember Sean Fletcher suggested including the old City Hall site of perhaps twenty-five acres on US1 in any RFP testing the market for City property.
“I toured the building with staff and clearly the deferred maintenance is taking its toll,” said Mayor Stephen Losner. “Every day that building sits there unoccupied, it’s going to become more and more expensive to bring back up to useable status.”
“There’s plenty of space left to co-locate one or more other uses,” the Mayor said. “We all recognize Le Jardin has a stellar track record. There’s value there, the local preference thing, and a known and performing entity with dollars in hand ready to go forward. The question is would any RFP process kill Le Jardin’s interest in the site?”
Councilmember Larry Roth asked about any long-term legal issues so that the City couldn’t tie up the site or if there were restrictions on its usage. “Also, do we want to create a cash flow situation but continue to use the property as a City park and for outreach programs.” he said. “This building has great bones but wasn’t cared for very well.”
“If we gave the Manager direction to come back with a formal proposal from Le Jardin, much of your concerns would be addressed,” Mayor Losner said. “They have a lot of money in hand and are either going to deal with us or go down the street and buy something else. They are ready to go and ready to add 150 new student stations at that facility.”
The City Manager promised to brief each Councilmember individually and bring a proposal back to April’s COW so Councilmembers could address the issues.
During Council’s public comments, the CEO of LeJardin Eddie Berrones informed Council the organization was just awarded a federal grant of $31.5 million enabling it to place 304 more infants, toddlers and pregnant women. The grant creates 125 new jobs bringing LeJardin’s total employment to 550, Berrones said.
Councilmember Jenifer Bailey offered an amendment package to Homestead’s Ordinance on murals, announcing her support for the “Mowry Murals Corridor” in the southwest neighborhood.
City Attorney James White said, “Murals would be handled administratively, set up to be administered by staff to roll out the program.”
“The vision is to build community morale and add to neighborhood aesthetics,” said Councilmember Bailey. “We want to show the unique cultures and histories of the southwest area with murals. This is a smoother process with set parameters, handled administratively. The application is only good for two years to make sure they are holding up their ends and that something is not deteriorating.”
The Councilmember reached out to private businesses that were interested in creating mural designs on their buildings in the Mowry corridor running from Krome Avenue to 187th Avenue on the western boundary. The draft ordinance amendment defines mural to prohibit commercial messages.
“The administrative approval, is that vetting actual content or look and how is that dealt with?” Mayor Losner asked. “Approval by the Development Services Director means Joe gets to be the Minister of Art.”
Attorney White said, “You must be careful because this is in the realm of free speech. Once allowed, there is limited ability to control what the message is.
This ordinance removes murals from the sign Code and focuses exclusive on the Mowry corridor in the southwest.”
Mayor Losner said the City has a public art committee and he would prefer that they deliberate and council has the final say on approved murals. “There is so much potential for controversy that it’s incumbent on us to take that responsibility rather than let a staff member be the focus. I’d love to have a two-tiered review.”
Councilmember Bailey responded that these were private businesses considering what they want on their walls. She was comfortable with administrative staff review.
“I have the same concerns regarding freedom of speech,” said Councilmember Stephen Shelley. “It would be good to vet through the art committee and through us for consent more than formal debate. This could be a fantastic tourist draw. Perhaps post a vision to eliminate controversy by limiting subject matter – history, agricultural, etc.”
Councilmember Avila wanted to see the item come to Council for approval. “Bring it up under City manager business, signed off by the director, and approved by us,” she said.
Attorney White cautioned that adding layers of regulation required more time and more resources. “The initial consideration is not a super sophisticated review. The public art committee can’t be the final authority as it’s just a recommending Board defined in the Code but once you implement this Ordinance (before you) you have to have the process in place. The next day the application is available and the process laid out on how to proceed.”
Attorney White offered to work with Councilmember Bailey to prepare alternative, parallel review options, one to give the public art committee the ability and add the right to appeal to Council.
“I understand Council’s concerns,” Councilmember Bailey said. “But whatever businesses want to do to show community pride, to make statement pieces, that’s my goal. I’m willing to come back next time, with letters from businesses, to get better idea of what the vision would be.”
Mayor Losner added, “I am not comfortable with purely administrative approval. You need to amend the document to add the public art committee – the artsy types get to pass on it and the applicant can come to Council. I love and support this concept but cannot support the plan as is.”