County rejects putting in writing true costs of bond issues
Written by Michael Lewis on October 16, 2013
In the name of disclosure, commissioners last week ripped the heart out of a plan to tell voters before a bond issue goes on the county ballot how much it would cost them.
They want to tell voters all – as long as they don’t reveal too much, only do it for some bond issues, never put it in writing so they’re not accountable, and positively, never, ever put the facts on the ballot.
They did it all, they said, so that voters can be fully informed.
They also did it, it seems, to keep the facts out of the press.
“Not to pick on the media, but the days of investigative reporting,” said Sally Heyman as she maneuvered to gut the measure, might hold commissioners accountable for what they say.
And, as she pointed out, commissioners want bonds to pass. What if the public knew the true costs?
“To require in printed materials – obviously it’s going to be campaign stuff – talk about chilling effect! It’s a realization. That’s my concern,” said Ms. Heyman.
The proposal before the Finance Committee was already innocuous.
It would simply have made policy – not law – that before placing a general obligation bond on the ballot, the county disclose in its own printed materials estimated principal and interest and the effect on tax bills. It would also have required two workshops to discuss facts.
In other words, taxpayers would be able to estimate what they’d pay if the bonding passed.
The county attorney’s office said that telling electors the cost of repaying bonds before they vote and the impact on tax bills is policy in many Miami-Dade cities.
But while that’s not top secret, commissioners made clear, costs can never be put in writing or ever go on the ballot. If you show up at a meeting you can hear what people say, but that’s not official, Ms. Heyman noted, “that’s a person saying it, and things change.”
Anyone who, just before a commission vote ran up a $3 billion baseball stadium tab, heard former County Manager George Burgess say over and over he didn’t know how much the bonds would cost would know what she meant – that’s just a person saying it, and things change.
Mr. Burgess never even used the word billion – but things change.
Even Esteban Bovo Jr.’s original legislation was far from full disclosure.
It only applied to general obligation bonds. So even had it been policy then and even had stadium bonds gone on the ballot, there’d have been no need to reveal taxpayer cost because they weren’t general obligation bonds.
Moreover, Mr. Bovo reassured colleagues, his measure wouldn’t apply before November’s $830 million bond vote for Jackson Health System, so the impact on taxes wouldn’t have to be disclosed.
It wouldn’t have applied to a Miami Beach Convention Center bond vote because that’s a city matter.
It probably wouldn’t have affected billions in water and sewer bonds now in the pipeline. Those bonds might never go to voters – and if they do, they won’t be general obligations so no disclosure would be needed.
Likewise, transportation bonds probably wouldn’t be general obligations and wouldn’t make the ballot, either.
If football stadium bonds come before voters, they’re also unlikely to be general obligations, so no disclosure needed.
So Mr. Bovo’s measure had little immediate impact.
Even so, commissioners maneuvered him to abandon plans to force disclosure on county materials. They stewed over bond campaign failures even though the policy wouldn’t have applied to campaign materials like those Jackson supporters are flooding the mails with. Only government literature was in question.
“The issue is to be very transparent and let the voters know well in advance,” Mr. Bovo had said at the outset.
“At least,” he said, under his measure as a voter “you know what you’re getting yourself into. I’m not sure that that’s the case right now.”
It’s certainly not going to be the case with no paper trail unless every voter attends one of two public discussions at which, as Ms. Heyman made clear, all that’s said is subject to immediate change.
Mr. Bovo also pointed out that his original measure would have protected commissioners from misled voters: “The finger would never come back to us to say, ‘You guys did not tell us.’”
Well, the finger is now coming back to tell commissioners “You guys just plain don’t want to tell us.”
The full commission should summon the wisdom to not only restore Mr. Bovo’s original intent but broaden it to all public bond issue votes.
But don’t count on it. As Ms. Heyman said in congratulating Mr. Bovo when, to pass anything, he finally stripped his measure of any call for written record of true bond costs before an election:
“Commissioner, you sure know how to read your votes.”