County joins fight against past City of Miami parking fees
By Paola Iuspa
Miami-Dade County officials are throwing their weight behind a Pinecrest resident's fight to prevent the recently reinstated Miami parking surcharge from becoming retroactive.
At stake is about $5 million in county funds.
The 20% parking tax being collected throughout the City of Miami since September 1999 became legal last Friday when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a corrected version of the two-year-old statue.
But Jess McCarty, Miami-Dade assistant county attorney, is saying the new statute does not make legal what was unconstitutional until Friday.
He said the county and attorney Thomas Korge, representing Patrick McGrath III of Pinecrest, would make their case Jan. 9 before the Florida Supreme Court.
After Mr. McGrath sued the city in 1999 challenging the legality of the surcharge, the Third Court of Appeal in June declared the tax unconstitutional. But the city appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The suit also sought the return of $12 million the city had collected before the law was rewritten and approved by state legislators. The city never stopped collecting the fee and is keeping the revenues in escrow until the matter is resolved, said City Attorney Alex Vilarello.
About a month ago, the Florida Legislature amended the law to make the tax legal. But "the new law does not affect the claim for reimbursement," Mr. Korge said, referring to the parking fees collected before the law was rewritten.
Mr. McCarty said the new law only applies to fees collected since Nov. 30, when the governor signed it. He said the county would do everything to prevent the city from collecting the $5 million the city says Miami-Dade owes in parking surcharges.
Since the city created the surcharge, the county has refused to pay the parking tax. Many of the county's government buildings are within the city's jurisdiction and have been subject to the fee.
The City of Miami also wants to collect the fees from a Miami International Airport parking lot used by employees, Mr. McCarty said.
Mr. Vilarello said using a Florida Senate guideline he interprets the new law as retroactive even though the word "retroactive" does not appear in the language of the new law.
He said the collection of the parking surcharge is constitutional.
"Any issues related to the constitutionality of the parking surcharge have been addressed," said Mr. Vilarello, who said he could not expand on the issue because of the pending litigation.
Rep. Carlos Lacasa said the law had been rewritten to make it constitutional, but legislators intended to make it retroactive.
"We will fix it before the end of this session," Mr. Lacasa said, referring to a two-week special session that began Nov. 27 to deal with state budget cuts.
"Why does the Miami-Dade delegation want their constituents who live outside the city to pay a tax that only benefits Miami?" Mr. Korge said. "Why do they want their constituents to pay a 20% parking surcharge? They are shifting the tax burden from the Miami residents to non-residents. What are they going to tell their voters, that they voted to charge them a parking surcharge to bail out another city that has nothing to do with them?"
The tax was created to help the City of Miami balance its budget after it became on the brink of bankruptcy in 1996 with a $68 million deficit. The city today has about $70 million in reserves.
Miami city commissioners have said people who don't live in the city but work or shop there pay the tax because they also use city services. Mr. Korge said people already pay for those services when they shop or pay office rent.
"Shoppers who don't pay rent still spend money in stores, which in turn pays property taxes," he said.