Splintering county spending among 13 fiefdoms is wasteful
Miami-Dade commissioners are taking a slippery road in dividing special income streams 13 ways, allowing each of them to spend slush funds at their will.
They started last month by divvying up the spoils of a battle to get payment from former Miami Marlins owners for a slice of team sale profits that ballooned because of almost $3 billion in county stadium spending.
Then last week they went from that single baseball payment to a 19-year cash stream from a Hong Kong-based sponsor of the arena where the Miami Heat plays. The wisdom of that contract is in question, but wisdom is clearly lacking in having commissioners split equally 30% of the take to spend as each sees fit.
With few exceptions, such as an allowance for commission offices and staff, county funds have been used according to a budget that all vote on to serve taxpayers as a whole. Now about $800,000 apiece in the first year is to be in the interest of each commissioner’s district.
As the county Balkanizes spending, it creates 13 growing fiefdoms where each commissioner has pots of money available with little check on priorities or recipients.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see some of that spending being used to make friends and win future election votes. That’s how cities ran 125 years ago, with area politicians doling out jobs and funds to build support. Some fattened their wallets in the process.
This is not to imply we have dishonest commissioners. But sole control of $800,000 does tempt one to bend the rules, and that temptation will be there for 19 years if commissioners vote to formally approve this every-flowing slush fund.
That temptation won’t disappear. Commissioners are limited to eight years, so at least three sets of them in each of 13 districts are going to have bites from this apple of temptation.
The county isn’t alone in pulling spending decisions out from under central controls. Three Miami city commissioners last year took over Neighborhood Enhancement Teams in their areas, grabbing the power to decide what those teams will do and who they will employ. A professional city manager was left with control of teams in the other two districts, handing him a dilemma of how to coordinate throughout Miami without any say-so in 60% of it.
Local governments all face a balancing act: how to meet area needs and how much of the budget should serve each area. Usually, professionals make recommendations and elected officials vote to decide.
But the new pattern of each commissioner taking over spending, with no rules on how to do so or what qualifies, opens a very large can of worms and is a mistake.
Every commissioner says she or he is the best person to decide how to serve their areas. But the money belongs to all taxpayers. To simply spread the money around is chaotic and wasteful.
If 13 commissioners spend for their own areas, nobody represents everyone. As County Clerk Harvey Ruvin notes in an Achiever profile this week, commissioners once were elected countywide though they had to live in their own districts. Thus, every commissioner had to think of serving every voter.
The more we subdivide perspectives, who speaks for broader needs like water and sewer? Pipes cross district boundaries. Who speaks for that, or social services, or dealing with the homeless, or hundreds of other regional expenditures?
Governments should serve all residents. While district desires vary, budget decisions can’t be willy-nilly in each area. Moreover, details should fall under paid administrators, not commissioners or non-governmental groups to which commissioners often handle bundles of cash. With 13 policies for separate sets of needs, professionalism will erode.
When Miami-Dade voters created a strong mayor a decade ago, some worried that would freeze commissioners out of setting priorities. But fragmentation in spending shows that the strength of a mayor is not on paper. Commissioners are simply taking the mayor’s political leadership away piece by piece, with a smile.
If commissioners add to this 13-way spoils system, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava in her role as manager will face the new challenge of how to have county staff handle a system where 13 commissioners spend according to varied priorities.
A final vote is due to cement the downtown arena funds split, and not all commissioners like it. Eileen Higgins points to the first steps to fragment the county into 13 fiefdoms and recognizes that countywide policy is far more effective than plans that end at district lines.
It’s a powerful temptation for each commissioner to make private decisions and get the cash to enact them. Unfortunately, it’s inefficient, wasteful, and a temptation to spend for all the wrong reasons.
The final vote on this fragmentation of efforts is ahead. Let wiser heads prevail.