News flash to voters: repaying county bonds costs money
Written by Michael Lewis on January 29, 2014
Commissioners have allowed voters to know that general obligation bonds are repaid from property taxes. In Miami-Dade, that simple truth is a step in candor.
It is not the great leap that’s called for, which would be to tell voters how much a bond issue actually costs and how much property owners must pay to repay it. That’s still almost top secret.
But at least, last week commissioners decided to allow voters to know that when they approve hundreds of millions in bonds it costs something.
Even that didn’t come easily. And commissioners were careful to leave the loophole that for any bond issue they could vote to leave out the fact that taxes repay bonds.
Still, it actually happened.
So Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr., who sponsored the bid to advance voter knowledge one baby step at a time, put out a press release hailing the gain – although that release talked about all future bond votes, which isn’t quite right: it’s only for general obligation bonds.
That means that the $830 million issue just passed for Jackson Health System wouldn’t have felt this simple warming ray of sunshine, because it wasn’t a general obligation.
Had voters been able to vote on baseball stadium bonds before the commission committed about $3 billion, that giveaway wouldn’t have been covered either, because those bonds are repaid from other county taxes.
And in any event, whether under the new or prior rule, voters would never have to be told anywhere by anyone at all how much government will finally spend to repay bonds, or how much interest is involved, or how much an average taxpayer must pay to fund them – or anything else.
But now, for a very limited number of bond issues, at least voters will be told that they cost money that taxpayers will someday repay in some amount to reach some unspecified total.
Look how far we’ve advanced!
As noted, even that was a stretch for some commissioners, who said it’s harder to ram bond borrowing down the throat of a voter who knows that it must be repaid from property taxes – and who might even deduce that since he or she pays taxes, it’s going to cost him or her some unspecified amount sometime.
“I believe that when the community sees the word ‘tax’ they’re not going to look at the issue,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan. “The word ‘tax’ says ‘Vote no.’ So I vote no.”
When things a bond issue would finance could be good for the community, she said, letting the public in on the fact that the benefits have to be paid for via taxes is a danger.
On the other hand, said Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, “I believe that what the community wants is information that is clear and that they can understand.”
Seeing herself on the losing side, Ms. Jordan asked if ballot wording for bond issues that Ms. Sosa suggested – “paid by property taxes” – could become “paid for by ad valorem revenue,” knowing that most voters have no idea what ‘ad valorem revenue’ is. Mr. Bovo didn’t buy her amendment,.
Last week wasn’t his first try at letting voters know what bonds will cost.
Last fall he sought to require the county to tell voters in writing what general obligation bonds would cost to repay.
His selling point was that commissioners could escape blame for ballooning property taxes if they could truthfully say in advance what the costs would be.
But other commissioners were firm: never in writing. It would be OK to say in a meeting what it might cost to repay bonds, but never put it on paper.
So having shamefully hidden the cost last year, a majority of commissioners – the vote was 10-2 – agreed last week that it’s OK to tell voters via the ballot that things they buy cost money, if not how much.
Even so, they left a loophole: by a two-thirds vote, commissioners can pull even that innocuous fact off the ballot.
As Mr. Bovo noted last week, “Government has a funky way of playing with ballot language that in essence confuses a lot of the residents… I’ve heard many residents when they get their tax notices all of a sudden start identifying items… that they have no idea they were paying for. When you tell them ‘You voted for this,’ again they’re clueless of the impact it has.”
The measure last week offers one clue for one kind of bond issue.
But voters shouldn’t be getting clues, a bit here and a bit there. They have every right to expect their government to tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about who pays for every kind of bond issue, how much in total will be paid back, and how much an individual taxpayer will spend to repay the bonds over what time period.
Ms. Jordan may be right: people might then be more inclined to vote no.
We, however, stand with Mr. Bovo when he said “the residents will support it when they feel it’s justified.”
He’s right. And the only way to justify as opposed to ramming it down taxpayers’ throats unawares is to tell them the facts in advance.
And we mean all the facts.