County wants one thing from Legislature: money
By Dan Dolan
As the Florida Legislature prepares for its regular session next week, Miami-Dade County elected officials say the region's problems boil down to a single word — money. There's just not enough to build the mass-transit systems, schools, public housing and other infrastructure the county needs to thrive.
Miami-Dade officials hope the state will start solving the county's cash crunch next week. But they know the reality. Florida is in just as tough financial shape as Miami-Dade, so they hold out little hope of receiving a cornucopia of currency from Tallahassee.
And even the things the state can fix — a punitive property-tax system and sky-high windstorm-insurance premiums — also come at a cost, Miami-Dade officials say. So they don't expect miracles, just a little bit of relief.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez' wish list includes relief from crushing insurance costs and rising property taxes.
Insurance and taxes are also hot-button issues for Commissioners Dennis Moss, Bruno Barreiro and Joe Martinez and two members of the South Florida Tallahassee delegation, House Speaker Marco Rubio and District 120 Rep. Ron Saunders.
Reps. Rubio, a Miami Republican, and Saunders, a Monroe County Democrat whose district includes part of southern Miami-Dade, said tax reform would top their lists of legislative priorities for the new session, which begins Tuesday and ends May 4.
Last week, Rep. Rubio floated a controversial proposal that would wipe out the property tax on primary homes and replace it with at an increase in the state's sales tax of at least 2.5 cents. But Rep. Rubio said he'd consider other alternatives.
"People are demanding property-tax reform," Rep. Rubio said at a Coral Gables City Commission meeting Tuesday. "We are open to any solution so long as it's comprehensive and real."
Rep. Rubio also said he wants to "roll back property taxes on business" by more than 25%.
Rep. Rubio didn't provide specifics about his plan to ease businesses' property taxes, but Mayor Alvarez would be delighted if he could achieve his goal.
"We need some sort of tax cap for commercial properties," Mr. Alvarez said. "We also need to let homeowners take their tax breaks with them when they move. We need to do something about insurance, too."
Rep. Saunders said the Legislature eased the windstorm-insurance crisis during its special session in January. But he said insurance rates still are too high and South Florida pays more for coverage than other areas of the state. He wants to review the actuarial models insurance companies use to set rates.
"The state's work is not done as it relates to property insurance," Mr. Moss said. "Giving a 25% reduction in premiums when rates have risen 200% is nice, but it doesn't solve the problem. When it comes to insurance and property taxes, we have to be smart about the solutions. We have to make sure we don't cause more harm than good."
Mr. Moss and other Miami-Dade officials fear too much tampering with the property-tax system could dam the county's revenue stream and result in massive cuts in public programs that would weaken the government. He said some legislators are trying to ease the county's grip on municipal zoning and planning.
"We have to make sure Miami-Dade's charter isn't preempted by Tallahassee," Mr. Moss said. "There are several pieces of state legislation floating around that would remove all county controls over home rule."
Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro and Commissioner Joe Martinez also oppose any attempts by the Legislature to rein in county government's power. Both said municipal governments are too narrowly focused to have true perspective on regional problems.
"The state is looking to take away our power to issue building permits and control water use," Mr. Barreiro said. "If we let them get away with it, we'll be facing a nightmare. We're talking about losing our power to control and plan for growth. We're also looking at losing huge revenues if the Legislature takes away our authority to award franchises for countywide services like cable TV."
Mr. Barreiro and Mr. Martinez said they're looking for more money, not less, when the Legislature finishes its work. Mr. Barreiro wants the state to provide $26 million to complete dredging of the Miami River. Mr. Martinez wants more cash to complete projects designed by the Florida Department of Transportation.
"Miami-Dade County has a lot of needs, and we need a lot of money to fill them," Mr. Martinez said. "Hopefully, the state will help bridge the gap."