Voters' faith in funding county bond issue isn't reciprocated
By Michael Lewis
Shame on us. Voters really believed that if we approved a massive bond issue for county infrastructure, we'd get what a high-cost government marketing campaign promised. We should have known better.
The Nov. 2, 2004, vote that approved the bonds — a $7 billion cost including interest for up to 53 years — listed 334 targets, spread across this county for every type of community need. Passage was an outpouring of faith in our future and our government.
We're not very far along in the 15-year spending plan, but already the lack of faith with voters is obvious:
nFour months before the referendum, County Manager George Burgess promised in a memo "an oversight proposal" for a citizens' team to watch the bond money and spending. Presentations to voters stressed outside oversight, crucial for passage due to widespread mistrust of county government.
Instead, what we got was a 21-member team to which each commissioner appointed one member, the mayor three and the manager five. Instead of oversight with power, we got the Citizen's Advisory Committee, which has no control over project selection, spending or quality of infrastructure. It's a toothless tiger.
nWhile details of 334 projects circulated, the ballot only listed categories of spending. But those who took the trouble to review the project list — widely done among community leaders — assumed we'd get just what was on it.
Instead, commissioners and administrators can shuffle a pile of money from project to project. We're not getting what we bought.
Granted, this isn't always bad. The county administration has frozen $15 million that was pledged for the Coconut Grove Playhouse for good reason: the playhouse had to close because it couldn't pay its bills or salaries. If it reopens, the money is still there. But handing it over today would be irresponsible.
nAt least one massive project that helped sell the bond issue has disappeared because by law it should never have been in the program at all. As we reported last week, mortgage subsidies of up to $137 million for affordable housing shouldn't have been included because the subsidies didn't fit the purpose of the bonds, capital spending.
nNow, projects that were never dreamed of are seeking a slice of the money. On Monday, county commissioners are to vote on whether to give $10 million from bond interest earnings to Florida International University's medical school.
It seems the county never set guidelines for spending the interest that bond proceeds earn as they await bills to pay. There's now $20 million interest, and FIU wants half. Other suitors will appear when they learn the money is up for grabs.
Although we're paying property taxes for projects the bonds are to fund, the improvements are lagging. As we've reported, 13% of 625 work efforts that are underway among the 334 categories are at least a half year late. And many large projects still await their start.
Taxpayer costs to fund the program are significant. At the outset a property valued at $1 million would pay about $390 a year, but the number balloons over time to $1,885 per year.
We were told property taxes wouldn't have to rise to fund this program, because we'd just be using long-standing tax income set aside for other now-complete bond repayments. But that's no longer a sure bet — the economy may become an unexpected factor.
The bonds' financing rests on an assumption that county property tax receipts would rise 5% annually to pay them off. That seemed a good bet two years ago, but property values statewide are now forecast for a decline in 2008 for the first time in memory. While new developments will bolster tax rolls, it's no certainty that the needed 5% annual revenue growth is possible without raising taxes.
Don't misunderstand: the infrastructure we're supposed to get — underscore supposed to — is needed. We might quibble over $100 million or so here or there, but that kind of small change can be wasted in the blink of an eye in a single commission meeting. Most of the listed 334 items were, and are, of significant value to our future.
But this program depends entirely on the reliability and judgment of your county government, which in recent years has shown too little of either. No independent oversight exists to keep this $7 billion tax train on track.
Shame on us for taking their word for what we'd get, when, or at what cost. It's all in the hands of your mayor and county commission. Until next election day, we can only pray.