Miami-Dade transit improvements on schedule though auditing board not yet complete
By Frank Norton
Delays in forming an independent auditing board to oversee Miami-Dade County's $17 billion transit spending plan might not set back improvements once planners make accounting changes to use the half-cent tax for the expenditures.
The county's general revenue coffers are fronting the bill for transit upgrades under the plan - funds that will have to be replaced this year with transit-tax revenue if progress is to continue.
Even though none of the county's half-cent tax proceeds for the plan can be tapped until the mandated auditing board is fully functional, improvements are being phased in as scheduled, County Mayor Alex Penelas said last week.
Examples of improvements include the Golden Passport program, which has helped boost ridership by 8,500 trips per month since it was expanded in November. The program lets all people older than 65 ride free on the county's mass transit.
Ridership on the county's downtown Metromover, which became free in November, has increased 40% and doubled on weekends, the mayor said. And growth in transit jobs and services is rising, he said, with 234 bus operators hired and six new minibus routes established. The Little Havana circulator now boasts 30,000 monthly riders while the Coconut Grove circulator has about 16,000.
In the six months since voter approval, the work under the transit plan is taking shape even though all such improvements have been financed with general, rather than transit-tax, revenues. Collection of the tax on most purchases in the county began in January, but without an auditing board in place, those funds can't be spent.
While a dual accounting system is allowing work to proceed without actually spending the tax money, it can't continue indefinitely, the mayor said.
The auditing board, Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, now taking form must soon ratify existing spending initiatives for general funds to get reimbursed by sales surtax proceeds as originally designed.
For that to happen, some organizational work remains.
The 15-member auditing team is still two members shy and months behind schedule.
Members are in the preliminary phases of forming subcommittees and getting acquainted, and questions remain over how independent it plans to be.
"It's kind of a tricky and, in some ways, thorny question," said Michael Abrams, interim chairman for the newly formed trust.
For example, the group still must decide whether to use county staff for administrative and operations support or hire independently from the outside.
The mayor said he thinks all staff should come from outside county administration to help assure independence and credibility in overseeing the implementation of one of the biggest capital improvement plans in the county's history.
"I urge you to err on the side of being as independent as possible," the mayor said.
The trust was created to audit, monitor, oversee, review and investigate tax-funded capital spending.
"I think the word 'audit' is a critical word. If I were sitting on the trust, I would want to have my own independent audit staff because you need to have your own advice as the eyes and ears of this community. They have entrusted you to make sure ... that money is being used efficiently and appropriately, and in my mind, the only way to have that assurance is to have an independent staff," he said.
As written into law, no more than 5% of tax proceeds can be used for administrative purposes. The mayor said attaining outside staff would not endanger compliance on that issue.
He urged members at a meeting last week to maintain independence.
"You're not here to be a rubber stamp. You're here to ask the tough questions," he said.
At least one member of the trust agreed.
"We at least need an independent auditor that is totally accountable to us if we are to provide appropriate oversight," said Mr. Abrams.
But Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, one of the architects of the oversight plan, thinks hiring outside staff could complicate and even delay progress with additional bureaucracy.
Commissioner Barreiro said that he and the mayor "don't see eye to eye on this issue." He said existing county staff could adequately and fairly support the trust and would eliminate the need to search for outside help.
The trust will ultimately decide how to proceed. A deadline for that decision has not been established, but trust members are scheduled to meet again at 4 p.m. Friday in County Commission chambers.