Transit surtax spending safe after Dade commission ups transit support
By Risa Polansky
Half-percent sales surtax proceeds can still fund long-standing Miami-Dade Transit services after commissioners last week OK'd a budget that avoids what could have been a major jam.
Mayor Carlos Alvarez in July proposed keeping general fund transit support flat in fiscal 2010.
It came to light last month that without upping the outlay, the county would have had to put the brakes on spending transit surtax revenues on services that existed before voters agreed to tax themselves seven years ago.
In cementing a 2010 budget last week, the commission avoided that potential wreck, agreeing instead to a 3.5% increase in transit funding.
Commissioners decreed the county would raise its transit outlay by at least 3.5% each year when they agreed to allow spending of transit surtax revenue on the existing system in addition to promised expansions.
When Commissioner and Transit, Infrastructure and Roads Committee Chair Barbara Jordan found out about the mayor's push to forgo the added funding, not only did she feel "bamboozled, betrayed and every other adjective," she also requested that the county attorney opine on the legal consequences.
"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 August opinion.
It would have been legal to pass a budget keeping general fund support to transit flat as the mayor proposed — but it would have meant budgetary consequences.
"The commission is free to pass a budget that does not include a 3.5% increase," said Bruce Libhaber, who covers transportation for the attorney's office, in an interview last month. "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 in 2002 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 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 with general transit dollars to save bus routes and continue providing vital transportation services in the face of current and projected funding shortfalls.
Their move last week to increase the funding 3.5% means the practice can continue — and saves 50 bus operator positions and 500,000 annual service miles that would have been cut under the mayor's plan.