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Front Page » Opinion » For Massive Tax Hike Hit Unprintable Officials Four Ways

For Massive Tax Hike Hit Unprintable Officials Four Ways

Written by on September 30, 2010

By Michael Lewis
We’re mad as hell about the double-digit tax increase Miami-Dade hit us with last week. But don’t make matters worse by campaigning to recall officials who ignore taxpayers’ pain.

It feels good to lash out at bunglers who OK’d the travesty — and "bunglers" is kind. Substitute your own unprintable noun if you like.

These unprintables piled on 12.2% more in operating taxes for every dollar of shriveled property value.

Then the unprintables added a separate 56% increase so the county can issue $350 million more in bonds to spend for still-unspecified whatever.

Remember, bond debt lasts decades, so the 56% hike becomes the base for more additions next year.

The higher debt ceiling will let the county issue a third batch of bonds to build Marlins Stadium. Repaying the first two rounds will cost the next generation $2.4 billion; adding on will push totals near $3 billion.

Angry enough yet? Join the crowd.

You can understand how County Manager George Burgess could push this. A vote of no-confidence has already abolished his job in 2012. He has nothing to lose.

But how could eight of 13 commissioners take part? Don’t they know taxpayers are up in arms?

The eight who piled on the tax burdens know full well. But they don’t have to worry about voters. Renters are the vast majority in some commission districts, and renters don’t pay property taxes.

Commissioners can count their non-taxpaying group and vote accordingly — one vital reason to eliminate district elections.

How about the five who voted against a hike? Most aim to run for mayor in two years and know they’d get trounced countywide if they voted for an unconscionable tax jump.

Term-limited Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who pushed the double-digit hike and as a result is targeted by a recall campaign, showed no shame as he claimed it was really no tax increase, but he’s unlikely to ever again seek any office.

Faced with the preposterous claim of no increase and such insensitivity to our pain, why shouldn’t we recall the mayor and eight commissioners?

Because eradicating county hall’s disease would remove nine officials who bungled but could kill the patient.

Like drinking a quart of liquor, recall might feel good — but it leaves an awful hangover.

Laws allowing the public to remove incumbent officials are powerful medicine. Doctors of political science will tell us the impact might shrink a cancer but could also render the body politic inoperative.

Today we’re lashing out over taxes. Weeks ago it was over a $3 billion stadium that profits only a team and returns none of its cost to taxpayers. Before that it was over hijacked transit taxes. The list goes on.

We feel the public’s anger.

But no single litmus test determines fitness for office. If on every big issue powerful interests threatened a recall, either we’d get puppets afraid to vote their conscience or we’d steadily be recalling from office those who didn’t vote our way.

Either would kill democracy. Government would grind to a halt.

Okay, that’s not totally bad. Some Miami-Dade actions might better go undone.

But on pivotal issues our elected officials must act, and they cannot be walking on eggs to avoid offending anyone with funds enough to run a recall campaign.

Besides, well-heeled critics may take opposite sides. How do you govern then?

Despite a national wave of recalls that The New York Times cited last week, or perhaps because of it, we must hold the bar to recall elections very high.

Criminal acts like graft, corruption and bribery qualify for recall.

Pigheadedness, insensitivity, bungling, self-interest, wastefulness, ignoring or misstating facts and the inability to read a budget don’t suffice.

While any of those conditions should make us dump a mayor or commissioner on election day, the callous engineering of a double-digit tax jump after the worst recession in 70 years isn’t criminal and doesn’t warrant the recall effort that billionaire activist Norman Braman vowed Monday against Mayor Alvarez — who in any case must leave office in two years.

In a democracy, we live with those we elect. Voters made bad choices, but voters rule, not those who can afford to engineer a recall.

Moreover, even if a recall vote ejected all nine, tax rates would still soar Oct. 1. We can’t wipe out the increase — a recall wouldn’t treat the illness that triggered it.

So, how can angry taxpayers strike back?

First, Commissioner Dorrin Rolle faces a Nov. 2 runoff. Activists have a target in a normal democratic process.

Second, we have time to find, encourage and support better candidates for mayor and commission.

Third, we can raise commission pay far past today’s $6,000 to lure decent choices. Putting a raise on the ballot would require voter initiative. Those who can finance a recall could finance this vital step.

Fourth, voters could fund a drive to exorcise the single-member-district system that allow just a few thousand votes to elect each commissioner, encouraging nobody to weigh taxpayer good or consider the county’s future.

There is every valid reason for anger and to want nine unprintable officials gone. But four ways other than recall can do the job while strengthening rather than imperiling the democratic process.