Silent call to chamber for county tax hike falls on deaf ears
By Michael Lewis
As a July 20 meeting to cap Miami-Dade tax rates nears, civic leaders were skillfully coaxed Saturday to press for a rate hike.
His plea for more was so skillful that County Manager George Burgess made the case without uttering the dreaded T (as in taxes) word, just as in selling a baseball stadium last year he avoided the B (as in billions) word.
You have to admire the way he skirted the obvious, gaining full deniability about stepping into the policymaking arena that belongs to the commission.
At the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Goals Conference, Mr. Burgess made his lengthy rate hike call as de facto mayor, since nominal boss Carlos Alvarez annually snubs requests to address the conference as Mayor Alex Penelas always did.
"That was a long speech on why we need to raise taxes, wasn't it?" a prominent attorney asked privately minutes after the talk ended.
Yet Mr. Burgess carefully couched his tax hike appeal as a statement of how well government has worked and how much it must do with so little.
Saying the county faces a $420 million shortfall starting Oct. 1, he made the case that all cuts possible without huge loss already have been made. Instead of doing more with less, he said, it's at the point that "we're going to have to do less with less" without the unstated rate rise.
To diffuse any call for holding the line, he branded those who look at total county spending of about $8 billion "not intellectually honest" because only $2.1 billion of that is tax-supported operations and just $1.2 billion is discretionary spending.
"It's going to be a challenge" requiring difficult decisions, he said, the hardest obviously but wordlessly being the tax rate hike.
Having labeled rate hike foes intellectually dishonest, Mr. Burgess made the case for efficiency by saying the county has fewer employees per resident today than in the early 1990s.
That may well be, but to be intellectually honest he might have noted as well that many in the county now also tax themselves to have municipal workers do what county staff once did.
Since 1990, in fact, nine municipalities have formed. Residents of Pinecrest, Key Biscayne, Aventura, Sunny Isles Beach, Miami Lakes, Palmetto Bay, Miami Gardens, Doral and Cutler Bay now pay locally for such work as police and fire rescue and more that the county did then.
Also, in recent years The Children's Trust, with its own tax base, has taken on tasks the county once did. Concurrently, the county subverted a sales tax voters approved to expand mass transit to do routine maintenance like cleaning buses that other revenue once funded.
Moreover, population rose about 450,000 in the 20 years, permitting economies of scale that should reduce employees per resident — although a structural change now pays both Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Burgess to manage.
In many ways, the county is doing less than ever. Give all this, why shouldn't it have even fewer on staff per resident than today?
Perhaps, in fact, one solution to a very real budget crunch is to untie the leash the county put on unincorporated areas and let the entire area have municipal services as county charter more than 50 years ago provided.
To be intellectually honest, taxpayers should consider all these and more as Mr. Burgess promotes higher rates in the face of fallen property values that will shrink tax revenues. While all won't be final until July 1, the county faces a 13.4% countywide taxable value fall.
That's the excuse to use a rate hike to fill the gap rather than living within means and cutting spending to balance the budget.
Mr. Burgess's case to the chamber: when adjusted for inflation, some taxpayers pay less property tax than 20 years ago.
But, to be intellectually honest, when adjusted for inflation some taxpayers are worse off than 20 years ago. Maybe they should pay less as their homes are being foreclosed upon or mortgages are under water.
Mr. Burgess also makes the case that county jobs — far higher paid on average than similar private jobs — cannot pay less. The county's unions, he said, already "stepped up to the plate. They understand the problem."
But will government equally understand taxpayers' problems? The recession cut into county consumer and business income and raised unemployment to 11.3% in April, with 144,400 jobless even as property values fell 13.4% in a year, undercutting homeowners' net worth.
Saying that efficiency and cost-cutting in government can only go so far, Mr. Burgess raised the specter of cuts in social programs that are "smart investments in the long run."
While he's correct about the long-run value, in the painful short run taxpayers might invest in food, clothing or charitable donations instead of higher taxes.
Would you prefer to choose your social spending or let county officials choose for you? They didn't ask.
What Mr. Burgess did ask is that beneficiaries of county and county-funded non-governmental organization programs speak out. In tax rate hearings, those who get will be the voices asking for more spending and hence higher tax rates.
Commissioners will be asked to keep tax receipts the same by raising the rate. But that works better when incomes and property values are up. Many who have far less now feel they should also pay less.
At least Mr. Burgess avoided the standard ploy: if the county doesn't get more, it will cut policing and fire services, water and traffic protection.
Not so, he said. Those can be maintained. But other programs aren't safe.
For that reason, he concluded, "The time has come to elevate the conversation to a higher level" — meaning a higher tax rate.
Interest groups, he said, need to tell commissioners "This is what we want and this is what we're going to have to sacrifice to get it."
But that sacrifice, some present reacted, should be program cuts rather than higher tax rates.
As for a rate hike, one civic leader wisely said, "I don't think it will happen in this town in this environment."
He's right, commissioners. It shouldn't.