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Front Page » Opinion » County Must Cut Handcuffs Off Our Independent Transit Trust

County Must Cut Handcuffs Off Our Independent Transit Trust

www.miamitodaynews.com
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Written by on July 3, 2008

Miami-Dade may soon free a trust formed to oversee transit taxes and let it exercise the clout voters were promised.

Disgracefully, commissioners approach the correct action for the worst possible reason: to wriggle away from blame for a mushrooming transit crisis.

Thankfully, intensifying pressure comes pre-election, goading recalcitrant commissioners to do what they always should have: keep transit tax promises to voters.

Voters approved a half percent sales tax earmarked for specifics although they feared commission control of the money — as well they should have.

The carrot to voters was the promise that a totally independent trust would completely control spending of transit tax receipts.

The day after the vote, however, the county was already breaking faith, committing millions in receipts to projects before the trust could ever be formed.

Things went downhill rapidly, a classic bait and switch. That was fine with the commission until press reports this year reiterated that most spending promised at the polls had already been diverted and Metrorail expansions on that list are unlikely — ever.

So, as we reported last month, commissioners initially approved token independence for the trust formed to oversee transit spending, the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust. The commission’s transit committee is to debate the idea July 9.

A baby step the commission proposes would allow a trust nominally independent of commission or administration to hire its own director. Up to now, the county manager has named them. The first was a political aide to Mayor Alex Penelas who had formerly run the homeless trust. County Manager George Burgess moved the second over from the courts.

Having the director of trust staff reporting to officials who also oversee the transit department that the trust is to scrutinize is a glaring conflict of interest. That neither director had transit expertise made a bad thing worse.

Trust chairmen have been fighting this for years.

"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," Miles E. Moss told us in 2006 when he took over as trust chairman. "We need to be more independent."

Another baby step the commission plans as heat intensifies is to let the trust hire consultants without commission approval.

That seems like a no-brainer: how could 15 ordinary citizens oversee hundreds of millions in taxes and the complex construction and operation of transit without aid of experts who aren’t beholden to the transit department, the commission, the mayor or the manager for their livelihoods?

But consultants too have been a sticking point. After the then year-old trust was asked to approve a $235 million contract to maintain buses, Chairman John Cosgrove, a former state legislator, said the trust didn’t have adequate resources to review such a large contract to ensure that the money would be well spent. "I think some kind of independent review by someone is needed to verify whether those figures are correct," he told us. "We are talking big, big money here."

So the trust tried to hire a financial adviser, but Commissioner Dennis Moss then insisted it could hire only a woman-owned firm in Miami-Dade County that did not already have any county contracts. How many such firms with expertise in transit could be found?

Only two firms bid, the trust said neither was adequate — so Commissioner Moss told the trust to lower standards and take one of them anyhow.

And you wonder why transit is in a financial mess.

The commission also vows to note for the first time that trust members are trustees and "shall have a fiduciary duty to the residents of Miami-Dade County as to the reasonable use of the Charter County Transit System Surtax funds."

Well, isn’t that what was promised to voters in 2002? Of course, but commissioners have successfully fought it. Rebeca Sosa and Dennis Moss in particular have been vocal that because commissioners are elected, they — not the trust — have the responsibility. And until now that’s how it’s been.

Now that the heat is on, however, giving the trust the trappings of independence could help shift blame for past fiascos.

Even if commissioners have the wrong reason, however, a move toward the independence we were promised in more than 80 public meetings six years ago is a start.

As Hilda Fernandez, who worked on the tax campaign for Mayor Penelas and then was named the trust’s first director, noted in 2004, the public was always promised independence — not on the ballot but in an accompanying ordinance and all those meetings. "Was the community told these were to be their powers? Yes. Was that part of the voter education? Of course."

But from day one, the commission and administration have worked to negate those promises.

As recently as last month, Miles Moss complained that the trust couldn’t get transit department spending and revenue projections and the trust’s county-appointed administrators weren’t helping. "How can we keep pushing [for a budget] when people who are trying to protect transit are also supervising our staff?" he asked in frustration.

The county has dragged its feet on the trust from day one. Though commissioners name 13 of its 15 members — conflict of interest number one — and the mayor a 14th — conflict number two — it took more than a year for Natacha Seijas to make her first appointment. She said no one on lists offered to her was good enough.

Often in its first years the trust didn’t have a quorum. In the first two years after the tax vote, membership was full for only three weeks.

Meanwhile, county spending of transit tax receipts went on and on and on without oversight — for nearly six months before the trust first met.

The trust in the end has wound up ratifying county actions rather than controlling money or transit plans. And the commission has shifted from spending taxes for the projects we were promised in 2002 to maintaining the old — spending more than half to replace old rail cars, not move forward.

From day one, monitoring the tax was impossible even if the trust had had financial advice, because the county never segregated receipts. It mingled them with other funds, a fiscally irresponsible move. There was no way to audit the source of transit spending.

As transit flounders, the only way the commission can get off the hot seat is to permit the true independence that voters were promised.

At minimum, the trust, not the commission, must control changes to the plan for spending tax monies and their flow. It must also hire its own director, staff and consultants. And it must get financial and other county transit information without hindrance.

Unfortunately, dear taxpayer, even if the trust could be pried loose from commission talons, we’ll never get what the county promised us in 2002. In their hunger for a tax, officials cited far more projects than the tax could have funded. Trust officials have been telling us that for two years, and commissioners have begun admitting it.

We were promised 24-hour rail service. That lasted less than a year. Then the county added new bus routes. Now it’s cancelling many. From six to nine new Metromover legs were vowed. All we’re likely to get is a 2.4-mile link to the Miami Intermodal Center now rising near the airport. It’s all too costly.

Unfortunately, county rape of tax receipts to do jobs that were never on the goals list hasn’t helped. In May, commissioners were voting to use money earmarked to expand transportation to exterminate insects on buses — a sad commentary on both the buses and county stewardship.

Transit improvements are vital. The county has been a miserable steward of the tax. The heat is on the commission, which is to vote soon on raising transit fares, removing free rides for seniors that came with the tax and cutting more bus service. This is our best opportunity to get a truly independent trust — if only as a scapegoat for massive county failures.

Resist halfway measures that might relieve pressure on the commission but not provide independence. Next week’s committee vote must be the next step to release the trust from the commission’s grip and allow it to do exactly what voters were promised.

There is no more important decision in this county today.

Commissioners can take all the credit when it works. Meanwhile, they can get off the hot seat today, and residents and visitors may finally get a chance to take a seat on the Metrorail or the bus in the future.