Puzzles Tax Rates Beacon Council Control Absent Officials
Written by Michael Lewis on June 6, 2013
By Michael Lewis
Dozens of bright questions at last week’s Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce goals sessions are worth probing. Some will lead to progress. Others will fly off radar screens.
While facilitators captured ideas on ubiquitous easels, some escaped or will be sanitized, removing queries that could embarrass outsiders. Let’s highlight three that eluded the spotlight or were aired in whispers.
One is tax rates that governments will soon set based on a Friday report from the property appraiser that countywide taxable values rose 3.1% to $196.6 billion.
The question at the conference: will governments trim tax rates in the face of rising values, knowing that net revenues will still rise, or will they hang onto all the increase?
Several factors come into play.
Local governments have tightened belts, so they’ll cite unfilled needs. Employees will also clamor for delayed raises. Those are tough forces to combat.
At the same time, most taxpayers suffered more real economic loss during the recession than they’ve regained as we’ve haltingly pulled out of the nosedive.
County Commissioner Juan Zapata sent a memo to Mayor Carlos Gimenez asking that the budget not rise more real personal income grew, which is less than the 3.1% valuation increase. Were his idea adopted, the county would trim tax rates.
In municipalities, the projected changes in taxable values — totals aren’t yet final — vary widely. Tiny but ritzy Indian Creek would have a 19.5% taxable value rise, Bal Harbour 15.4% and Sunny Isles Beach 10.2%.
At the other end of the income spectrum, Florida City’s taxable income would drop 6.6%, Opa-locka’s 5.6%, Hialeah’s 3.8%, West Miami’s 2.3% and Miami Gardens’ 2.1% — no help in easily lowering tax rates among those who need it most as municipal incomes slide.
But in our biggest city, Miami, taxable values rose 4.1%, with a pipeline full of still-untaxed construction that in coming years will rocket up taxable values and hence tax collections.
Will a mayoral election this year in a city heavy on low-income residents lead to a tax rate cut that still yields more city income, or will the city simply spend all the added income as current buildings’ values rise and it adds more structures to tax rolls?
The city’s Downtown Development Authority enjoys a 6.6% rise in taxable value. Like every city and taxing authority, it can cite numerous "needs" — and it actually cut its half-mil tax rate to .478 mils in fiscal 2012, when its taxable values had risen 12.13% above 2010, leaving its final tax income a bit more than $5 million. The city commission controls that tax rate.
Similar dramas will play out across the county.
Another drama to be staged is control of the Beacon Council, the county’s public-private economic development partnership that’s spearheading the countywide One Community One Goal job development drive.
Under intense pressure from some county commissioners, directors two months ago forced out long-time CEO Frank Nero. Now a headhunter is searching for candidates to replace him, both locally and around the nation.
The question never asked publicly at the goals conference as a Beacon Council team presented a One Community One Goal update is how much control the county will exert over CEO selection and how the county might try to shift the Beacon Council’s direction.
Historically, the council has been run by business leaders aiming to build business, especially higher-paying jobs. That has not sat well with commissioners, because much of the council’s income comes via business license fees yet the council has been run like a business rather than a commission appendage.
The first hint of how things might shake out will be whether the council ends up hiring a recognized economic development professional capable of luring national and global business or a politically connected Miamian whose prime asset will be strong ties in county hall.
One question related to county government was debated. It was — ironically, considering the Beacon Council situation — an apparent falling away of government connections with the chamber.
Art Noriega, who runs the City of Miami parking authority, noted that far fewer county department heads and commissioners this year attended the conference, resulting in a loss of both expertise and connections between the chamber and those who could make chamber goals into realities.
"They need to be part of this process," he said. "Ultimately, it’s about resources and processes and mechanics."
"At the department level at the county that’s really what we’ve lost," agreed Humberto Alonso, vice president of Atkins.
But it wasn’t just paid staff whose paucity they lamented — it was also elected officials.
"For whatever reason the elected officials haven’t been part of the planning here, and they haven’t been for some time," said Ramiro Ortiz, a former chamber chairman and top-level banker who is now CEO of HistoryMiami.
We didn’t see any Miami elected officials there and only one county commissioner, Jean Monestime.
On the other hand, county Mayor Carlos Gimenez was prominent and vocal. When he wasn’t there, Deputy Mayor Jack Osterholt was.
But in years past both elected officials and department heads were plentiful and active. Katy Sorenson as county commissioner seemed to be in as many workshops as possible — as she was this year, though now out of office.
It’s unclear whether to blame government officials for falling away, chamber staff for not gaining their attention, or chamber leaders for not appearing relevant enough to bother with.
A related question: how do we get government and business leaders — whether the chamber, the Beacon Council or others — to work more closely together for maximum benefit of the county’s economic climate?