Miami-Dade Commissioner Gimenez vows petition drive to kill transit tax as transportation trust measures denied
By Risa Polansky
With two measures aiming to alter Miami-Dade's half-cent transportation surtax spending dead on arrival, one commissioner continues to push to get a surtax repeal on the ballot as the independent trust charged with overseeing surtax spending shapes a strategic plan.
Commissioners Carlos Gimenez and Rebeca Sosa Tuesday each proposed measures that would have changed the way the county spends surtax proceeds and restructured the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust's makeup and duties.
Both failed with no comment, each in a 6-6 tie with Commissioner Natacha Seijas absent.
It's the commission's practice to vote on first-reading items without discussion.
The now-dead measures followed a failed attempt by Mr. Gimenez earlier this month to rally commissioners to put a surtax repeal on the ballot.
In the years since voters agreed to self-impose the sales surtax, its purpose has changed without residents' consent, he says.
It was sold in 2002 as means of funding new transportation projects, including major Metrorail extensions.
Now that the county can use the bulk of the surtax proceeds for operations and maintenance — commissioners voted in March to mingle all but 10% of surtax funds with the general transit budget — voters deserve another say, Mr. Gimenez insists.
His attempt to refocus surtax spending and revamp the transportation trust quashed, the plan now is to spearhead a petition drive.
"My next step is, I'm going to continue to pursue putting this initiative on the ballot," he said.
For citizens to call a referendum to repeal an ordinance, 4% of the county's registered voters 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.
About 1.2 million residents are registered to vote in Miami-Dade now, meaning about 48,000 would need to sign the petition.
"It's not an easy thing to do," Mr. Gimenez said. "We're going to need some funding, we're going to need some volunteers."
He's received already an estimate from one company that could steer the efforts: between $180,000 and $220,000, assuming no volunteers join in.
A second company is to provide an estimate this week, Mr. Gimenez said, and he anticipates it will be lower.
But "the more volunteers we get, the less the cost is going to be," he noted.
Meanwhile, the transportation trust is moving full speed ahead to adjust to the recent change in surtax spending.
"We really feel that the trust has a very important strategic role to play in transportation as we move forward," trust Executive Director Charles D. Scurr said at a joint meeting of the trust and the county's Transportation, Infrastructure & Roads Committee last week.
The trust is working to form a strategic plan that will address concepts such as public outreach, project and financial review and financial analysis and management.
A goal, trust member Paul J. Schwiep said: to figure out how to deliver what voters expected from the surtax.
"The feeling within the trust, at least, is, it's not good enough to say "OK, we over- promised, too bad, so sad, we're done,'" he said.
The trust and county continue to mull using light rail or bus rapid transit to serve the corridors that were promised heavy rail.
Some trust members suggested also considering a sunset provision for the measure that mingles the surtax funds with the general transit budget, as there may be a financially healthier time in the future that could eliminate or lessen the need for what administrators call "unification."
Mr. Schwiep said reviewing or setting a sunset provision could mean "that at some period in time, the surtax funds were returned to their original purpose."
Commissioners resisted the idea.
"We went through a lot of hand-wringing in coming to this decision," Katy Sorenson said, and commissioners continue to apologize for over-promising projects.
A sunset provision would mean perpetuating the discussion, she said.
"I don't think it's a useful exercise."
She wondered also how it would affect the county's bond rating.
Barbara Jordan, chair of the transit committee, said she'd be comfortable with a periodic review on whether alternative funding sources would allow some surtax money be funneled back to capital projects, "but I would not want to see us do anything in terms of jeopardizing sunset of what I hope is a commitment."
Because the surtax funds now have a broader use, trust members are bracing for more contracts to come across their desks for review.
"We have to be prepared to review a broader range and potentially larger number of contracts," Mr. Scurr said.
The idea is to home in on those of major importance.
For instance, reviewing contracts for new transit uniforms may not be a productive use of time, he said.
Rather, "we want to move into budget and performance reviews."
Officials are considering naming a threshold for contract consideration, potentially $500,000 or $1 million.
The trust has also hired a consultant to analyze innovative means of transit funding, such as tax increment funding, availability payments to private partners, and benefit assessment districts that would tax mostly commercial property owners in a designated area to fund a new project.
Officials expect a full report in August.
The aim, Mr. Scurr said, is to look at surtax funding and determine "how do we multiply those dollars, how do we stretch those dollars."