County able to (bait and) switch its transit funding sources
Written by Michael Lewis on October 3, 2017
Faced with a legitimate outcry over transit cuts just as the county aims to spend $6 billion to add transit corridors, Mayor Carlos Giménez took a well-worn route last week: he cut in half funds to be set aside for future lines to instead run today’s.
This came just months after Miami-Dade had reduced rail hours and frequency to save money in the face of continuing ridership declines and consequent loss of fare revenues to run the trains and buses.
The county is in a bind: too little money for transit as road congestion builds and patience with lack of fixes expires. But stripping away long-term answers to keep transit rolling today solves nothing. It helps commissioners brag that they kept buses and trains rolling more frequently but undercuts equally vital long-term plans.
As the hours ticked down to a budget vote, the mayor last week outlined his Band-aid for transit and promised that “as we bring in our new train cars [now being tested], service reliability will improve.”
Then he recommended that commissioners amend the People’s Transportation Plan, which governs the spending of our transportation tax for equipment and routes, to cut the share of funds going to new service from a pitiful 8% of revenue now to 4% “from this point forward.”
If you acted in 2002 when this newspaper backed a vote in favor of the half-percent sales tax just for new transportation, we apologize. That promise has been whittled away again and again in a classic bait-and-switch that the mayor’s new plan all but completes.
The sales tax that voters geared 100% to expand transit has been redirected to augment general revenue.
The county commission formalized the bait-and-switch in 2009, leaving only 10% of county’s share of tax receipts – only 8% of the total, because cities get one-fifth of receipts – remaining to do what the whole tax was guaranteed to do.
How did we get to the point of robbing future transit gains to pay for today’s loses?
In 2002, then-mayor Alex Penelas sold us the half percent tax to expand Metrorail. Using the tax, the sales pitch said, we would link Metrorail to the West Dade campus of Florida International University, the airport, the seaport, even Miami Beach, and run up to Broward County. Only the airport link was ever created.
There was more. Every project the tax would build was listed. Because nobody trusted county hall, Mayor Penelas pledged that a firewall would protect the funds: a totally independent trust would dole out the cash properly.
But as soon as voters created the tax, the county broke promises, one by one.
First, instead of an independent trust, commissioners decided to appoint the team and control every step. They planned to spend the money first, then seek a retroactive OK.
Then, commissioners delayed naming members and made huge spending moves before the trust was formed.
Meanwhile, the commission hijacked most of the money meant to build transit to maintain what we already had. The administration said it had never had enough money to run the present system.
After that, the county admitted that the tax funds, even if properly used, would never suffice to create most of what voters had been promised.
Then, in 2009, commissioners formalized the theft of 90% of the trust money to operate the present system, meaning virtually nothing the tax was intended for would ever be funded.
As voters, we taxed ourselves because officials promised more transit. Instead, the sales tax was used to exterminate bugs in buses, pay salaries, and do routine chores that general funds should have covered.
And other county revenues needed just to keep the minimal transit system that we already have going are being spent elsewhere. If the commission didn’t want to cut its other spending to maintain transit at the level it now achieves via hijacked tax funds, it could have raised property taxes. Now, it’s just tapping a sales tax we were credulous enough to levy on ourselves.
Mayor Giménez knows all of this. But commissioners told him they want most transit service cuts restored, as transit use keeps falling and falling – in June it was down 9.1% overall from a year earlier and down 18.2% from four years earlier; the pattern is the same for other months.
Part of the answer was to tap sales tax receipts reserved for new transit. Last year that income was a bit over $11 million. If commissioners follow the mayor’s plan, half of that will be spent on operating costs, including raises for transit operators.
The mayor told commissioners that if they don’t vote to cut in half annual funding to the reserve for new transit and they then don’t put the current $11 million or so into the fund, they’ll lose the ability to raid the sales tax receipts to keep present operations going instead of funding future routes.
If the county hadn’t passed the final budget last week, we’d have applauded a very belated shift to use all of the sales tax to build for the future instead of formalizing an expanded raid for current operations. If transit is really one of the county’s top priorities, it should come first when dividing the budget pie.
As it is, the county is caught with two concurrent and equally pressing needs: keep transit running as much as possible and then add a full countywide web of service on top of it.
The mayor last week helped fund current operations by promising to cut $2 million somewhere in the budget to fill gaps. In a $7 billion budget that is certainly possible.
But formalizing yet another raid on a transit tax that we were solemnly promised would never be raided is hardly a way to build voter confidence in county government and its ability to deal with transportation.
Voters will soon be called on to create special transportation taxing districts or other mechanisms to fund more transit. Furthering the bait-and-switch handling of the present transportation sales tax will impede those vital transit growth efforts.