New chairman: Transit panel struggling for control, independence
By Dan Dolan
Exactly four years after Miami-Dade voters approved a half-percent sales tax increase to improve mass transit, the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust, the watchdog panel created to guard the money, is still struggling to establish fiscal controls and gain independence from the county commission, says Miles E. Moss, the trust's new chairman.
"Financial issues are a greater concern than independence," said Mr. Moss, who was elected chairman two weeks ago after serving on the trust's board of directors for more than three years. But he concedes finances and independence are linked.
At the heart of the issue, according to Mr. Moss, is the tussle to administer and authorize use of the sales tax revenue created by People's Transportation Plan, which won voter approval in November 2002 and established the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust. Between January 2003 and August 2006, the half-penny sales tax generated $609 million to improve traffic flow and mass transit systems.
Both the county commission and the trust share control of that massive war chest, said Mr. Moss, a Kendall resident and CEO of Miles Moss & Associates, a forensic engineering consulting firm specializing in traffic accident analysis. Both bodies' approval is required by law for a project to fly. But the commission can override the trust with a two-thirds vote.
"We want to change the approval process holding the floodgates on the money," Mr. Moss said. "We think the CITT should approve projects first — then send them to the commission for review. Right now, it works just the other way around. The commission approves things and sends them to us for review.
"This frequently leads to delays. If we want a change in a contract or project, it can stall things for two months or more when we send our changes back to the commission.
Having the CITT do the initial review and recommendations would make the spending process more efficient because the CITT is closer to the issues at the heart of the People's Transportation Plan. I don't see it as being about power — just making things more efficient."
But the county commission, which has the ultimate say under an ordinance it passed to initiate implementation of the People's Transportation Plan, has been reluctant to cede authority to the trust, Mr. Moss said.
Commissioners shot down a proposed law that would've allowed the trust to hire its own executive director and financial consultant. Right now, the county manager names the trust's executive director — with the commission's approval — and commissioners have the last word on all spending, including who will serve as the trust's financial advisor.
"We need to be able to hire our own executive director because it supports the appearance of independence that was a key part of the People's Transportation Plan approved by voters," Mr. Moss said. "We need to be more independent. That will save time."
As a result of the existing approval process and changing federal regulations, Mr. Moss said it took more than a year for the trust to award its original $645,000 financial consulting contract to Infrastructure Management Group of Bethesda, MD. The firm, which was recently given a new three-year, $1.34 million deal that begins in 2007, helps the trust assess risks and analyze costs.
Mr. Moss said financial experts are reviewing the trust's contributions to Miami-Dade Transit. Under the People's Transportation Plan, the trust is supposed to underwrite 29% percent of all new projects that Miami-Dade Transit initiates. However, Mr. Moss said the transit department may be "double-dipping" into the trust's funds. He said the transit department frequently charges the trust 29% of the cost of services, including free passes for low-income veterans and senior citizens, that the trust already 100% funds.
"They may have to go back and credit us some money," Mr. Moss said. "That money would be used for other projects. We're trying to set up an auditing system that is foolproof and makes sure there is no duplication of cost. We need to be able to look at things. We need a system of checks and balances."
Despite past disagreements, Mr. Moss said the trust and commissioners are working more closely together than ever. The trust recently formalized monthly meetings with the commission and is to begin official quarterly briefings with Mayor Carlos Alvarez next Wednesday. That session, to be held in the mayor's conference room, will be open to the public.
Mr. Moss hopes the meetings will eventually lead to more independence for the trust. He said the commission is taking a second look at proposals to give the trust a bit more control. However, he hasn't lost sight of the reason the trust was created.
"The real challenge facing the CITT," Mr. Moss said, "is helping the county build an efficient, cost-effective transportation system that serves the needs people today and 30 years from now."