County shuts barn door after milking its tax cash cow dry
County commissioners have just unanimously decided that, come October, Miami-Dade’s half percent transit tax will for the first time be used the way voters were promised it would. Bravo.
Unfortunately, that will come 17 years after the county began collecting and spending the sales tax money, which so far has totaled about $2.7 billion, very little of which was ever used as everyone intended.
Each year about $100 million or more of the tax money that was going to build us vital new transit was siphoned off to maintain transportation we already had.
Whoever can trace what happened to county revenues that were flowing in before we had a transit surtax and that were originally geared to maintain transit should get a prize in fiscal forensics. The former transit funds just evaporated elsewhere.
Now commissioners are closing the barn door after the tax-producing cash cows have been milked dry for more than a decade of funds that could long ago have built us real rapid transit – no, never what we were promised, but more than we got, which so far has been a drop in the milk bucket, the short airport Metrorail link.
Here’s what happened to the tax plan just as we told it on this page a decade ago this month, when commissioners decided that the fiscal rape of transit funds should be made formal and permanent:
“A sales tax that voters passed to expand transit has been stolen and subverted to general county revenue….
“The county commission just formalized the bait-and-switch. Now only 10% of receipts remain to do what the whole tax was guaranteed to do, and even that 10% will pay off past bonds, not build for the future.
“Background: In 2002, when Alex Penelas was king of Miami-Dade, he sold us a half percent tax to expand our woeful Metrorail system, linking to the main campus of Florida International University, the airport, the seaport, maybe even Miami Beach, and running up to Broward County.
“There was more. Every project the tax would build was listed.
“Because nobody trusted county government, Mayor Penelas pledged a firewall would protect the funds: a totally independent trust would dole out the cash properly.
“But as soon as voters created the tax, the county shattered the promises, one by one.
“First, instead of an independent trust, commissioners decided to appoint the team and control its every step. They planned to spend the money first, then seek a retroactive OK.
“Then, commissioners delayed naming members, making key spending moves before the trust was formed. One commissioner waited almost a year to name her delegate.
“Meanwhile, the commission hijacked most of the money meant to build transit to maintain what we already had. The administration admitted it had never had enough money to run the present system.
“After that, it admitted the tax funds, even if properly used, would never do most of what voters were promised.”
Finally, in 2009 the county commission formalized the theft of 90% of the trust money to operate the old system, meaning little the tax was intended for would ever exist.
Voters had taxed themselves because officials promised to expand transit. Instead, the sales tax was paying to exterminate insects in old buses and all manner of routine chores that funds already on hand should have funded.
What that meant in hard dollars was immediately evident: more than $98 million of fiscal 2009 sales tax funds meant to add new transportation were formally sent to be used for operations and maintenance of what we had long been using.
It continued yearly: $120 million sidetracked in fiscal 2010, $101 million in 2011, $99 million in 2012, $104 million in 2013, $95 million in 2014, $102 million in 2015 and so on, according to county budget officials.
That’s the cycle that last week’s county commission vote will finally end.
Unfortunately, we’re closing the financial barn door when it’s too late for the cash cow: according to Mayor Carlos Giménez, while the tax receipts are now headed for proper use, expanding project costs are expected to consume them all by 2024. That leaves little time to use transit taxes to help fund the Smart plan for six new transit corridors – and that plan is the heart of the current aim to meet glib but empty promises that in 2002 sold voters the transit tax.
That means that those who wanted transit taxes to be used properly – including in 2009 then-Commissioner Giménez – are headed for a hollow victory: after 17 years they’ve won the battle for proper use of the taxes, but too late to do us much good.
So the transit tax will roll on – and so will the quest to fund all that transit we were promised.
It’s proper that the county has halted its bait-and-switch and is finally being honest with taxpayers. But 17 years of lost time and money that could actually have built transit has been costly – as any frustrated Miami-Dade commuter will attest.
The right thing ethically was also the right thing pragmatically. For 17 years we did neither.