County should take another step to play fair on bond issues
Written by Michael Lewis on July 14, 2015
A vital step to build fiscal sanity and voter awareness passed in a Miami-Dade committee last week.
The measure would require calls for general obligation bonds to state the cost to operate and maintain projects the bonds would finance and spell out sources to pay that cost.
That’s pretty basic, very logical and fiscally sound. But it doesn’t happen now.
Commissioners today seek bond borrowing without asking those operating costs or where the money would come from. Since they don’t ask or know, they never tell voters. This county don’t ask, don’t tell really needs fixing.
Now a commission committee has approved transparency and fiscal planning for general obligation bonds. But in preliminary full commission action, Dennis Moss and Barbara Jordan already voted no without explanation.
In the past, however, Ms. Jordan has made clear her reason to avoid bond transparency: if you tell voters they have to repay borrowing via higher taxes, they’re more likely to vote no. And since commissioners want that money to build something, don’t tell the voters they’ll pay.
Despite her objection, Esteban Bovo Jr. in 2013 pushed through a measure to make ballot language clear that taxpayers repay general obligation bonds. Estimating operating and maintenance costs and stating where that money would come from is the next step in playing fair with voters.
It would help the commission too. Cost estimates and funding sources wouldn’t go on the ballot, but the county would know them and could use them to plan.
As sponsor Juan Zapata noted in last week’s hearing, having funding sources on record would prevent acrimony that sometimes occurs when operating costs must be taken from some other commissioner’s project, robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Putting costs and sources on record would also help commissioners avoid what Mr. Bovo termed voter “pushback” over “sticker shock” long after a project is finished when they tell commissioners “we were never told the actual amount,” as he said commissioners heard in one stadium project.
Mr. Zapata cited the value of commission clarity:
“I don’t think we should be putting things in the abstract. I think what happened before and happened with the last [general obligation bond] is that we ended up buying a lot of votes by offering everything to everybody.… I don’t think that shows any fiscal restraint.”
This measure is more specific, more transparent and actually requires planning for where future costs will come from.
Without that planning, as Mr. Zapata noted last week, once a bonded project opens “the last thing we want to do is put us in a position where we’re obligated to fund it no matter what the operating expenses are, and I think we’ve had some of those examples before.”
The full commission should pass this. What could be wrong with knowing how much structures will cost to run and maintain and where the money is to come from? The county’s attorney said there’s no legal problem with using estimates – in fact, no budget is exact, but budgeting is vital nonetheless.
The only hesitation is that if voters know what bonding would cost them, they might say no. That means commissioners must make a case for why they want us to tax ourselves more heavily. How could that be bad in a democracy? As it is, we already get to vote – we just don’t get facts.
Even this measure is just a step to transparency, fiscal responsibility and fairness with voters and taxpayers.
We need to learn not only how much borrowing we are authorizing, but how much we will repay, including interest. Every mortgage statement requires this, but for bonds we’re never told.
Then, we should be told how much per $100,000 valuation the average taxpayer would have to pay. We know how much we pay to buy a car or house, but not for bonds. Why not?
Finally, voters need this information both before and on election day. The measure to reveal maintenance and operating costs doesn’t have a mechanism to get the facts to voters.
Ballot questions now are limited to 75 words. If they told us more, would that be bad for democracy?
Additionally, digital communications could link every ballot question to a full explanation online. Again, more transparency and fiscal responsibility.
We suggested last month these vital voter tools be part of the measure that the committee passed. Still, it’s a strong step forward that commissioners should OK without a quibble – and then return to do more.