Dade commissioner Gimenez attempting to get transit surtax repeal on ballot
By Risa Polansky
It was up to voters to self-impose a half-percent sales surtax to fund new transit projects — and it should be their call whether to continue paying it now that its purpose has changed, Miami-Dade Commissioner Carlos Gimenez says.
He's calling for a referendum to repeal what's known as the transit half-penny, which voters OK'd in 2002.
Commissioners are to consider his proposed ordinance next week.
The move comes less than two months after the majority of the commission voted to allow the bulk of surtax revenue be used for transit operations and maintenance rather than exclusively new projects — the "final straw," Mr. Gimenez said Tuesday.
Now, "it's only right that they have the right to reconsider that vote in light of the reality of what that tax is going to be used for," he said.
The measure is likely to face opposition.
Even after warnings that voters might view the move as a bait-and-switch, nine of 12 present commissioners agreed in March to alter the use of the funds to support transit operations, reserving for capital expansions at least 10% rather than the whole pot.
Supporters say the change was necessary to protect the existing — and financially troubled — transit system.
Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who sponsored the measure to mingle surtax revenues with the general transit budget, stands by the decision.
"If we lose the half penny, then we are really going to have to suffer deep, deep, deep cuts," she said Tuesday.
Had the county continued to reserve surtax revenues solely for new projects, "we were going to be cutting some very significant [bus] routes that would have impacted over 3,000 individuals," said Ms. Jordan, who also chairs the county's Transit, Infrastructure & Roads Committee. Now, after agreeing to use half-penny proceeds to support the transit system, "we are only impacting less than 300 individuals."
Losing the half penny altogether "would basically be devastating to our transit system" — and the many residents who depend on it, she said.
Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who supported altering the surtax's use for what she called the sake of the transit system, said it's more important now than ever to adequately fund public transportation.
In pitching the surtax to voters years ago, "we over-promised and under-delivered," she said Tuesday. "But now is not the time to make our transit system less effective."
Mr. Gimenez acknowledged that killing the tax would mean re-opening a funding gap for the transit department but stressed the value of keeping the county's promise to voters.
"To me it's more important that government keeps its word, and I know there are going to be some consequences… but that's not how Miami-Dade County sold that transit tax to the people of Miami-Dade County, and government shouldn't work that way," he said.
Ms. Sorenson sees it differently.
"I believe in a representative form of government," she said. "People elect us to make decisions and to take the heat when decisions are wrong, as well.… We need to go forward, and I don't think repealing it at this point would have any value except to take away from our transit system."
Should the commission next week kill Mr. Gimenez's move to put a repeal to a vote, there's another route: a petitioned citizens' initiative.
When asked whether he'd encourage one, Mr. Gimenez said only "I'm going to see what happens at the commission level."
He could find some support there.
In voting against changing the surtax's uses in March, Commissioner Joe Martinez warned against what he called pulling a bait-and-switch on voters and vowed to try to repeal the half-penny.
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa also voted no, stressing the need to keep promises.
If passed, Mr. Gimenez's measure — and the referendum meant to follow — would not kill the surtax right away.
His proposed legislation calls for collecting the half-percent until all related outstanding county and municipal debt and contractual commitments based on the use of the tax are paid off or legally annulled.
Until the end of that year, the money would flow into a trust fund and be used only for that purpose.
Mr. Gimenez predicts the county would need to continue collecting for three to four years before the tax could go for good.
At that time, the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust — created to oversee surtax spending — would also be abolished.
Linda Zilber, chair of the volunteer board, said she feared a repeal as soon as commissioners agreed to reroute the bulk of the surtax proceeds toward transit operations.
The majority of the transportation trust supported the change.
Ms. Zilber opposed it.
"This is what I was afraid was going to happen" — and transit is too vital to jeopardize by killing the charge altogether, she said.
Even dedicating only a portion of surtax revenues toward new projects rather than the whole pot "is better than nothing," she said. "I think this is a big mistake at this time."