County on road to add to shameful transit funds hijackings
Written by Michael Lewis on October 22, 2014
Miami-Dade commissioners are poised for their final hijacking of funds targeted to add vital transit.
Flying so low under the radar that a Miami Today article was the sole mention, commissioners are preparing a final vote to defer pledged transit funds for up to five years. The legislation doesn’t say why, nor did commissioners in a 12-0 vote Oct. 7.
The next vote would withhold about $6 million. Commissioners had sealed that transportation fund increase in concrete in 2005 legislation after they misspent hundreds of millions from a voter-authorized sales tax to add transit.
The $6 million clawback is minor. Still, withholding it from transit would be symbolic of the county’s continued malfeasance with transit tax money and failure to keep a single public promise about transit spending.
Consider this: the bulk of the about $1.4 billion in sales taxes that went to the transit department over the past 11 years to help build 88.9 miles of new transit lines was spent otherwise. We got just 2.4 miles.
The county has amassed a shameful list of broken transit promises – a list the commission must not add to by hijacking $6 million more for up to five years.
They weren’t casual promises. Some came at the ballot box, others via ordinance.
The $6 million heist would break the final pledge left standing.
In a community where mass transit gaps threaten to derail economic expansion and already are exacerbating road congestion, diversion of monies meant to expand transit is unconscionable. At county hall, however, it is business as usual.
The fund diversions started just as soon as voters in 2002 agreed to a sales tax to add eight extensions to Metrorail totaling 88.9 miles, plus new bus routes and roadway improvements.
The county had also pledged to maintain former transit funding so that the sales tax money would be an addition, not a fund shift. And it vowed to build a firewall: an independent trust would spend the money, not the mistrusted commissioners.
So what happened?
Commissioners took over the trust, handpicked its members, barred it from hiring a staff, allowed no outside experts – and then decided to spend the money themselves.
Dennis Moss, the transportation committee chairman who now is trying to withhold $6 million in pledged funds, also decided that the trust should merely rubberstamp commission transit decisions.
Even before naming the trust, in fact, commissioners misspent hundreds of millions of future transportation sales taxes.
Then commissioners decided that rather than do what the legislation required with new transit, the tax funds would just help keep the current system rolling.
By 2009, County Manager George Burgess in a remarkable document said that without diverting the transportation expansion money the county couldn’t get by. He admitted that it was “totally and completely unrealistic for anyone to have ever thought” that the tax receipts would do what voters were promised.
He might well have added that it was unrealistic to believe anything the county ever promised.
At that point, commissioners passed legislation saying that 90% of all the money we taxed ourselves to expand transportation would be otherwise used as commissioners, not a trust, saw fit.
Four commissioners, led by now-mayor Carlos Gimenez, did try in vain to allow voters to decide whether to stop paying the diverted tax.
As they were funneling the new taxes to old uses, however, commissioners had pledged in 2005 legislation to at minimum fund pre-tax county transit spending and add a token 3.5% yearly.
Now, Mr. Moss wants to defer this year’s 3.5% for five years. His legislation would attach a penalty if the commission didn’t keep this new payment pledge, just as it has broken all of those in the past to keep transit funds where they belong.
What penalty? Simply that if the county doesn’t turn over the 3.5% by five years later than law now requires, the county will no longer be allowed to divert sales tax money as it has done for 11 years.
So if the county breaks a final pledge, it would have to stop breaking an earlier pledge, an erosion of public trust that has already misspent hundreds and hundreds of millions.
Unless, of course, it breaks the pledge to not continue to break the pledge that it is now breaking.
No, we are not making this all up. We just don’t understand why commissioners are.
We can guess in a tight budget year why Mr. Moss wants to withhold $6 million, but we’d rather hear him in commission meetings defend continual diversion of money from one of the county’s primary needs as the commission continues to break faith with voters.
To break this final pledge, Mr. Moss needs a two-thirds vote because the $6 million is required by law. That means nine commissioners would have to vote to again break their promises to the public that are written into the law on transportation spending.
As a commissioner in 2009, Mr. Gimenez commented on the failure of county hall to live up to these promises. We couldn’t put it better:
“By failing to keep our promises on the [People’s Transportation Trust], we are ensuring that voters never again trust us to do what we say. It is imperative that we regain and preserve that trust.… In this classic case of bait and switch, the ends do not justify the means.”
It will take only five commissioners to prevent this final $6 million hijacking of transportation funds. How many of the 13 will, in the words of Mr. Gimenez, seek to “regain and preserve that trust” and vote no?