Budget snafu leaves Miami-Dade transit tax spending in limbo
By Risa Polansky
Miami-Dade won't be able to use half-penny transit sales surtax proceeds to support existing transportation services should commissioners follow Mayor Carlos Alvarez's lead and choose not to increase the county transit outlay in the upcoming fiscal year.
The mayor's proposed budget keeps general fund transit support flat in fiscal 2010, though when commissioners voted to allow transit surtax revenue to be spent on the existing system in addition to promised expansions they decreed also that the county would raise its transit outlay by at least 3.5% annually.
Commissioner and Transit, Infrastructure and Roads Committee Chair Barbara Jordan said last month she felt "bamboozled, betrayed and every other adjective" by the mayor's proposal to renege.
She requested that the county attorney opine on the legal consequences of withholding the increase.
"The consequence would be that surtax proceeds could not be used to fund prospectively the cost of existing service…" County Attorney R.A. Cuevas Jr. wrote in an opinion Monday.
Bruce Libhaber, who handles transportation for the attorney's office, confirmed that in an interview Tuesday.
"The commission is free to pass a budget that does not include a 3.5% increase," he said. "The result, though, is the commission or the county would not be able to use surtax funds to pay for services that were in existence as of Nov. 5, 2002," when the sales surtax came into effect.
That was the point, though, of changing surtax spending in the first place.
Voters agreed seven years ago to tax themselves one-half percent to fund new transportation projects such as major rapid transit extensions.
Three years later, the commission agreed to allow surtax funds to be spent to support existing service.
This year, they expanded on that, allowing more flexibility and setting aside at least 10% of surtax proceeds for capital expansion, but letting the rest be mingled — or "unified" — with general transit dollars.
Supporters say rerouting most surtax revenue to operations and maintenance was needed to save bus routes and continue providing vital transportation services in the face of current and projected funding shortfalls.
Though the mayor's budget plan calls for keeping general fund outlay flat, it still relies on using surtax funds to support the existing transit system.
The budget "maintains a unified system," it says, based on the legislation "allowing for greater flexibility in the use of surtax funds for the operation and maintenance of the transit system."
Mayoral spokesman Victoria Mallette said "nothing is final, nothing has been adopted… There is very good likelihood that adjustments will be made before a final budget is adopted."
In drafting the budget, "there was no intent to create a legal problem," she said Tuesday.
It seems unlikely commissioners will support the mayor's budget recommendation.
Commission Chair Dennis Moss in a meeting with Ms. Jordan late last month said the promised 3.5% transit funding increase is "one of those services that we need to buy back" in finessing and passing the official budget.