How county officials prioritize top needs (they really don’t)
Written by Michael Lewis on December 30, 2014
Miami-Dade County sorely needs to get its act together to maximize help from the legislature.
County officials complain we send far more money to the state than we get back to serve our residents. They also lament that Tallahassee doesn’t listen to what we need in Miami-Dade. Other counties, they moan, are far better at getting what they want from the state.
All of that is true, and there’s a reason: despite having five former state legislators on our 13-member county commission, we stumble all over ourselves when we ask the state for what we think we need. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Although a county lobbying corps works the corridors in Tallahassee, our commission is lame when it comes to setting priorities for what we are asking our lobbyists to produce for us.
If Tallahassee doesn’t enact our wish list, it could be that legislators from around the state are too busy laughing at our list. The average resident could do far better than the county in enumerating needs.
Each December – far too late – our commission finally gets around to trying to tell Tallahassee our top needs. It just compiles a year’s worth of miscellaneous resolutions that ask Tallahassee for something or other, then asks commissioners to pick the top 10.
It did so, mind you, in the final minutes of the final commission meeting of 2014, having delayed any consideration of needs from an earlier meeting. By the time the commission came to weigh priorities, only seven of 13 members remained, barely a quorum, and the seventh was about to leave. Hardly the position to reason through what you need from the state in the next year.
Commissioners were handed two wish lists. One was to be top priorities, by commission vote.
They didn’t discuss individual priorities. In fact, they came within a hair of delaying any action at all until after state legislators in January have vetted matters to act on in their annual session. We almost took ourselves out of the running for everything we want.
In the end, commissioners cast paper ballots to include their top 10 from among 23 aims of individual commissioners – the top, most important, most vital things they want from Tallahassee.
Not to deride the aims, but with all this county’s critical needs in higher education, transportation, schools, hospitals, economic development and job growth, social services, infrastructure and far more, the 23 items to choose among included – and I’m not making this up, I assure you:
State funding for a horse and cattle show, rest stops for cattle coming to the show (that’s a second item), identity theft protection for minors, regulation of liquid nitrogen, dual naming part of Curtiss Parkway as Doral Boulevard, banning the sale of ivory in Florida, and requiring sexual predators to wear electronic monitors. Those are almost a third of the choices for what is most important to Miami-Dade County.
Other top-10 candidates included regulating children’s use of firearms at gun ranges, examination procedures for the mentally ill, funding the Miami Military Museum, and details of the Florida Retirement System for state employees.
Sally Heyman, who did serve in the legislature, tried to guide commission colleagues toward more fundamental needs. “I love elephants, but the sale of ivory…” she said in wonder.
She reeled off her own list of more fitting major concerns, things like money to aid the mentally ill, funding Florida International University to expand by taking over the county fair site – “that’s not in here, and it’s millions of dollars” –, transit projects, sea level rise, and community redevelopment agencies’ accountability.
“That’s a handful that come to mind from sitting here and looking at the priorities [list] that I got on Tuesday… I don’t think co-designation of a portion of Curtiss Parkway has to be a priority in Miami-Dade.”
She pointed out the strategic danger of a ludicrous list of desires. “This is a public document and it’s being circulated,” she warned. And, she emphasized, she was making a point: “I do it every year.”
Yet every year the county comes back with the weakest of wish lists.
Not to worry, commissioners, were told: paid county officials made their own wish list, one in which officials elected to make the decisions get no say. So don’t worry, the bureaucrats will decide for you.
Besides, said Jose “Pepe” Diaz, commissioners should go individually to Tallahassee and lobby for their own key aims. “All of us do that,” he said.
But 13 commissioners individually telling legislators and state officials what they individually want done isn’t effective. The county pays lobbying professionals to speak with one voice – about banning ivory sales or whatever else it is that Miami-Dade really, really needs most.
Well, watching commissioners stumble all over themselves trying to set aims and then go Christmas shopping, what the county really, really needs most seems to be the ability to prioritize what we really, really want to get done.
It’s no wonder we get so little from Tallahassee. We don’t know how to ask for it.