Vote to double transit tax was wrong road to fill funding gap
By Michael Lewis
The Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust made a strategic error in voting last week to seek to double the sales tax we pay to bolster mass transit.
It's not that Miami-Dade doesn't need transit funds. It does - desperately. Along with more affordable housing and better public education, transportation is one of this county's biggest needs.
But the trust was the wrong body at the wrong time asking for the wrong thing - doubling a tax that's already perceived as mishandled.
As some trust members pointed out in opposing a successful motion calling for a sales-tax hike, the 3-year-old tax has yet to have impact on a $17 billion transit expansion plan.
Moreover, voters already feel victimized by a county commission bait-and-switch that emasculated a trust that was to be independent, leaving the body independent in name only.
Voters would never have approved a tax commissioners could control, so they were promised a watchdog. Yet the county quickly made an independent watchdog into a lapdog.
"I really consider the CITT more of an advisory board rather than a trust," said member Luis Morse, a former state legislator, when he resigned a trust seat at the end of last year. "We are doing what the county commission wishes."
Voters were persuaded to pass a half-percent sales surtax for transit in November 2002 by pledges that a trust would control proceeds. Yet the county spent receipts long before a trust was seated and appoints 14 of its 15 members. The trust has had all 15 on board for only three weeks of its life as commissioners continue to reject nominees, making it hard to get a quorum.
The county manager has named both trust executive directors rather than allowing a search for a high-powered expert. The first was an aide to the mayor. The most recent came from the courts.
The county dragged its feet to keep the trust from hiring an outside financial consultant, forcing the trust to rely on the very people it is to oversee in determining whether money is being used properly.
And the county named the trust's staff from the ranks of county employees rather than outsiders.
Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse.
Even that wasn't enough, as Commissioner Dennis Moss moved last year to strip the trust of the powers to control changes to the transit plans that had persuaded voters to tax themselves. Voters had been promised that a trust, not the commission, would make any needed alterations.
This weak trust, though no fault of its members, has neither the credibility to persuade the public nor the legal power to double taxes. Only voters at a referendum could achieve that.
And, as trust members pointed out, until far more is done than adding buses to already-congested roads, any plea to double the tax will fail. Voters have been jaded by the undercutting of the trust and revelations that the county, in selling them the tax, hid a transit deficit and ignored rising operating costs and fleet replacement needs - so the tax could never produce enough receipts to meet the promises made to voters.
But that doesn't imply hopes for adequate transit funding should die or languish. It just means that the county cannot double-dip on the sales tax.
Fortunately, our tax base is soaring, spearheaded by booming construction and soaring values of existing structures that will vastly increase revenues without raising rates. The county is rolling in money.
We should use that torrid income growth to fulfill the transit plans voters were promised. Creative financial minds can surely find ways to bond these strong cash flows for transit - a decision to build for the future rather than to spend for the present.
The county commission can direct this spending, accomplished without new taxes. And it can do it now. It doesn't even have to give a toothless trust a formal say.
Trust members meant well in asking for doubled taxes, but taxpayers would never approve. The commission, however, with staff's creative help, can raise the needed funds.
New taxes aren't needed to fulfill the pledges already made to voters that we will have a real - and vitally needed - mass transit system in our very near future.