Miami-Dade commission votes down referendum to repeal transit surtax, Gimenez shifts focus
By Risa Polansky
It's time for a detour after Miami-Dade commissioners Tuesday blocked one route to giving voters a shot at repealing the local half-percent transit surtax, Commissioner Carlos Gimenez says.
He plans a "two-pronged attack": pushing measures to return to what he says voters were promised in approving the surtax, and seeking funding to launch a petition drive to get a repeal on the ballot.
At a commission meeting Tuesday, Mr. Gimenez proposed — unsuccessfully — a referendum to allow voters to decide whether they'd like to continue levying the sales surtax they agreed to self impose in 2002.
Since, the surtax's purpose has changed without voters' consent, he says.
It was sold to residents as means of funding new transit projects, including major Metrorail extensions.
But over time, revenue has been put in part toward replacement of Metrorail cars and transit maintenance.
The commission voted officially in March to allow the bulk of surtax revenue be merged with the general transit budget, setting aside only 10% for new projects.
Mr. Gimenez Tuesday attempted to give voters a shot to weigh in on the change through a referendum, but only three other commissioners backed his proposal: Joe Martinez, Javier Souto and Bruno Barreiro.
Rebeca Sosa, who voted against mingling the funds in March, was absent. Even her yes vote would not have sealed the deal.
So Mr. Gimenez is taking another route.
He plans to propose legislation that would halt the "ability to stray from the original work plan" the tax was meant to support, and that would strengthen the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust formed to oversee surtax spending.
Some have called the trust a "toothless tiger" controlled by the commission.
To give the volunteer board some of the independence its name suggests, commissioners agreed last year to allow trust members to hire their own director and have the chance to review transit contracts before the commission votes rather than afterward.
Now, Mr. Gimenez said he wants to "revamp it altogether" to ensure the trust has the power to govern spending.
At the same time, he's doing his homework and seeking funding for a citizens' initiative to get a repeal on the ballot.
It may not be easy, said Dario Moreno, who researches Miami politics and directs Florida International University's Metropolitan Center, which studies South Florida demographics, economics and politics.
For citizens to call a referendum to repeal an ordinance, 4% of the registered voters in the county would need to sign a petition, county rules say.
The 4% would apply to the number of voters registered as of the day the clerk approved the petition to be circulated.
No more than 25% of the signatures could come from a single commission district.
About 1.2 million residents are registered to vote in Miami-Dade, meaning about 48,000 would need to sign the petition.
"Really the only way to do thatů is to have an organization of volunteers. A very, very well-structured and very disciplined organization of volunteers," Mr. Moreno said.
Another option: spending about a quarter of a million dollars to hire a professional petition company, he said.
The only successful countywide citizens' initiative Mr. Moreno said he can remember is Mayor Carlos Alvarez's 2006 strong mayor campaign, when Mr. Alvarez gathered enough support to place on the ballot — and pass — a measure expanding the position's power.
After the referendum, the commission created more stringent rules for getting items on a ballot.
"It's very burdensome," Mr. Moreno said.
Civic leader Norman Braman, who a decade ago spearheaded a successful campaign to vote down a proposed 1% transit tax, said he'd love to see the existing half-percent surtax back on the ballot.
"I think it's a wonderful idea, giving the citizens a right to make a decision on that," he said in an interview last week, anticipating the commission would vote against the repeal measure. "I think it's sad that apparently the policy of this mayor and this commission is to deprive people who live in the community, the voters, to make these decisions."
But he won't be leading the effort.
It's difficult and costly for citizens to put issues up for referendum, Mr. Braman said.
"It's very cumbersome. It's very difficult. It's very expensive. I'd love to, but I've got so many things going on."
Mr. Gimenez acknowledged "it's a cumbersome process" but said he's already rolling.
He contacted a company that estimated it would cost about $250,000 to get the job done.
The first step is seeking financial support, Mr. Gimenez said.
Already there's opposition.
Commissioner and Transit, Infrastructure & Roads Committee Chair Barbara Jordan has come out against a repeal, fearing losing the surtax revenue would mean drastic service cuts for those who rely on transit.
Monday, County Manager George Burgess blasted a memo warning that "the service impacts of the loss of this revenue would have irreparable impacts now and in the future."
He acknowledged the tax was over-sold but insisted it has not been mismanaged.
Surtax revenue is backing several initiatives it was always meant to, Mr. Burgess wrote, including free Metromover service, free transit passes for seniors and local transportation initiatives through municipalities.
Still, Mr. Moreno said, locals appear dissatisfied.
He has not polled voters, but "my sentiment is that if this gets on the ballot there will be a chance that it will pass," he said. "I think there is a level of frustration with the county of how this money has been spentů the difficult part is getting it on the ballot."