Reveal on ballot the operating cost for bonded construction
Written by Michael Lewis on June 2, 2015
With a bow to logic, a Miami-Dade commissioner wants to require that before asking taxpayers to OK construction bonds, the county list how much running the project would cost and where that money is.
Juan Zapata’s question is basic, though commissioners with edifice complexes seldom ask it. They love to build, piling construction and interest costs onto tax bills. But they give little thought to how they’ll run projects later.
Then they’re shocked when arts centers and museums need operating aid. The routine has been build it and operating cash will come – but how much and from where is unknown.
So Mr. Zapata’s measure this week is a solid stride to let both commissioners and voters know what they’re buying with general obligation bonds.
Even if commissioners approve, his proposal is only a first step.
It should cover all bond issues, not just general obligation bonds. The $830 million that voters OK’d for the Jackson Health System, for example, was not general obligation bonds, nor were baseball stadium bonds.
Moreover, voters who must repay bonds with interest need those facts. Mr. Zapata would require only that commissioners get data, not that operating cost and source of funds go on the ballot for taxpayers too.
And while we’re informing voters, they should get a total cost of bonds and estimated interest.
They should also see how much taxpayers would pay per $100,000 assessed value to pay for the bonds.
No sane businessperson would cut a deal without these relevant facts. How do you decide without all costs and repayment sources?
It’s the same for commissioners. For years they’ve been asking taxpayers to spend money when neither side knew just how much, where it would come from or how much it would cost to run what they were building or where that money would come from.
When you buy a car, you want to know not just its cost but finance charges, cost of operation and maintenance, and where you’re going to get all that money.
Commissioners haven’t known. Mr. Zapata wants them to.
And we want that information to get to voters who are called upon to tax themselves.
When commissioners lack facts, miserable decisions follow.
In 1990 Miami built a Bayfront Park fountain with a costly spray mechanism but forgot that the electricity, water and maintenance take money. After passing the hat for aid, the city ripped out and discarded the spray system because it couldn’t pay to run the fountain – after which the city’s centerpiece sat bone dry for years.
The county in 2009 voted to bond for a baseball stadium though commissioners never knew that costs were near $3 billion. And because those weren’t general obligation bonds, nobody but commissioners ever got a vote.
So Mr. Zapata’s measure is welcome. And since a committee hearing is upcoming, there’s time to amend it to give voters on a ballot all the facts that Mr. Zapata wants commissioners to have on the dais.
If commissioners exclude facts because they fear voters will act on self interest rather than commission aims, then the county is treating the public as a rubber stamp.
To say that voters always reject bonds if they know the impact on taxes assumes that voters consider neither the public good nor their own interests. If a bond issue isn’t good for everyone, after all, why put it forward?
Last year, when Esteban Bovo Jr. wanted fellow commissioners to note on general obligation bond ballots that property taxes would repay bonds, he met an uproar from those who feared sunlight.
His argument was that “the residents will support it when they feel it’s justified.”
In the end, commissioners excluded his aim to tell voters on a ballot a bond issue’s total cost and how much it would cost taxpayers to repay. Then they tried to slip in the phrase “ad valorem” because almost nobody knows what that means.
Since ballot questions top out at 75 words, Rebeca Sosa sought just four words: “paid by property taxes.” With lawyering, it wound up at 15: “paid or secured by taxes derived from the assessed value of property in the County.” Her phrase was shorter and clearer.
Taxpayers, as we’ve noted, need five facts on every bond ballot, general obligation or not: total cost with interest, source of repayment, cost to a taxpayer per $100,000 assessment, cost of operation and maintenance, and source of operating and maintenance funds.
You can’t vote intelligently without all five.
Don’t worry about everything being voted down. Not only do we stand with Mr. Bovo on yes votes when justified, but taxpayers are no longer the majority of Miami adults.
We now are the nation’s largest renter city in percentage, 63%, topping New York. Tenants don’t pay direct taxes, though owners do pass along costs, so they’re far more likely to OK bonds they don’t see themselves repaying.
Between that large bloc of tenants and direct taxpayers who, as Mr. Bovo says, will vote for what’s justified, commissioners should not only get all the relevant facts before they vote but put those facts on the ballot to give voters the same knowledge.
Mr. Zapata’s measure begins that process of bringing fiscal sunshine into the voting booth.