County Admits Conning Voters On Transit Tax So Lets Kill It
Written by Michael Lewis on May 14, 2009
By Michael Lewis
Two months ago, Miami Today called for any county commissioner to admit subversion of our transit tax and initiate repeal. But realistically, we lamented, no one would step forward to right terrible wrongs.
We sold short one commissioner: Carlos Gimenez. He did propose a repeal referendum to the commission — which immediately denied taxpayers the right to decide whether, having been duped, they want to keep paying the tax.
Now Mr. Gimenez plans two more steps in taxpayers’ best interest:
•End the hijacking of transit tax receipts for uses contrary to express guarantees to voters.
•Seek $250,000 to gather signatures for a referendum, giving voters the say that commissioners deny them.
Mr. Gimenez is taking the high road, putting public trust ahead of expedience. Instead of remaining silent about a disgraceful wrong that the commission admits but won’t remedy, he’s keeping faith with the public.
If you’ve come late to this ugly story of deceit, let me bring you up to date.
In 1999, then-Mayor Alex Penelas sought a sales tax for transit. Everyone agreed expanding mass transit was vital but he failed to sway voters, who distrusted the commission to do right with receipts.
So he returned in 2002 with an appealing change: a half-percent tax would be administered not by a mistrusted commission but by a totally independent trust, and the money would have defined uses.
The county, under Manager Steve Shiver, listed those uses again and again, spotlighting a massive addition to Metrorail to honeycomb the county. Government pledged it would keep up prior transit spending so the new money would add routes and not fund operations.
Miami Today strongly supported the tax based on those promises. Other media did too. Voters bought in.
And we were all wrong, because not a single one of those promises was kept.
As soon as the tax passed, commissioners took over the supposedly independent trust. They picked its members. They barred it from hiring a staff. They didn’t let it use outside experts, so transit officials who were to be overseen became the sole providers of input.
Then, the commission dictated that the trust would not control spending but would only verify what the commission had already spent — again, with no outside experts.
But before naming even that puppet team, commissioners has already committed hundreds of millions of future transit tax dollars, and not for what voters were promised. As commissioners delayed naming a trust — Natacha Seijas didn’t make a pick for nearly a year — they spent and spent.
And Dennis Moss, now commission chairman, insisted that trust members merely rubberstamp decisions, not make their own.
With a subordinate and misnamed "trust" in place, commissioners finally admitted they had no intent of adhering to pledges to voters. Money to run the system was inadequate, they said, so scrap expansions and use the tax to keep the old system afloat. In March, they formalized that hijacking.
Finally, when Mr. Gimenez tried to let voters decide whether to keep paying a tax that the commission had immediately subverted, County Manager George Burgess issued a remarkable document.
He said in essence that the county can’t get by without using the hijacked money for purposes that were expressly barred in the 2002 vote.
And he admitted that it was "totally and completely unrealistic for anyone to have ever thought" that tax receipts could ever have done all that the county promised voters.
Promise ‘em anything to get the cash. That was the plan. The defense Mr. Burgess offers is, "The transit tax was certainly over-promised, but not mismanaged." Some defense!
The Burgess document contains even more remarkable statements: Despite promises of county officials at all levels, there would never have been enough funds on the federal government’s end to add the rail lines even had the sales taxes not been subverted.
Moreover, even had federal rail money been there, he admitted, we wouldn’t have gotten it. "Our community does not yet have the densities and congestion levels to ensure we are highly graded for receipt of federal funding," he wrote.
Beyond that, had the federal government ignored our low densities and given us the money anyway, Mr. Burgess reveals for the first time, the most we’d ever have built in 30 years would have been 24 to 36 miles of rail — far less than the 88.9 miles written into the transit tax sales package handed to voters.
In short, everything the mayor, manager and commissioners told voters in 2002 to get a tax passed was pure fiction.
Commissioners admit all this — and say that now that they’ve gotten the money, it’s theirs to spend because they need it.
They are proving that already cynical voters have every reason to distrust the motives and methods of their elected officials.
It is mistrust that Mr. Gimenez targets. He seeks to end the commission’s "ability to stray from the original work plan" of the tax and to revamp the transportation trust so that it effectively governs spending.
That’s all fine, but the iron horse is already out of the barn — funds are committed for years to come. A real trust based on the original plan would be welcome, but it’s merely a patch job.
So, at the same time, Mr. Gimenez is seeking to let citizens decide whether they’re tired of being duped by a county that can hijack power and money and then shrug the whole thing off.
Mr. Burgess (he says he speaks for the "Administration," presumably including his boss, Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who has been silent on this dirty deal) says that without the tax officials can’t run the transit system we now have, let alone add to it.
That’s true, up to a point. They can’t run it unless — and this is key — they find money elsewhere in the county’s massive budget or raise taxes. They can do either or both today.
Their retort will be that a dip into other departments’ budgets will cut into police or firefighters or parks or community-based organizations. They’ll pick flash points, not the $3.9 million that commissioners spend as they please (each gets a $300,000-a-year allowance) or agencies that lack clout.
But what can be the barrier to raising taxes to aid transit? Commissioners can do it with no public vote.
The rub is that commissioners would lose support at the polls. They can hide the transit tax hijacking because voters, not commissioners, created that tax. But raising taxes themselves makes commissioners vulnerable. Barring a tax hike, it’s almost impossible to defeat a sitting commissioner — the last time was 1994.
If we let commissioners con us again by saying they need the tax for uses that were expressly barred, we’re not only accepting an ongoing wrong but rewarding commissioners at the polls for committing it.
If, on the other hand, we support Mr. Gimenez’s effort, we’ll give voters a chance to decide whether they love commissioners enough to continue having their pockets picked, or whether they believe in keeping government honest — which means that we expect government to keep its promises.
We all want transit. We need what we have. We need more. We really need what we were promised. But we’re not going to get it with the transit tax. Mr. Burgess admits we’ll never get it at all.
Miami Today strongly supported funds for transit. But do it ethically and forthrightly. Don’t reward deceit.
For that reason, we wholeheartedly support Mr. Gimenez’s efforts to make government keep its word. You should too.