County plans to bond with community on ballot questions
By Tom Harlan
Miami-Dade County officials plan to muster support for a $2.9 billion bond issue through a grassroots campaign.
Twenty-five members of a county-appointed bond unit and more than 150 volunteers will visit communities and organizations next month to educate voters about eight bond-related ballot questions that could earmark billions of dollars to improvements. The bond issues will appear on the Nov. 2 General Election ballot.
"Our goal is to hit the pavement," said Victoria Arias, public-affairs manager for the bond unit. "This is going to be an in-your-face type of campaign."
The campaign's first priority is to ensure residents understand the bond is one program broken into eight ballot questions. Voters will be asked to weigh in on each issue separately.
The referendum will propose funds for:
Water, sewer and flood control, $378 million.
Parks and recreational facilities, $680 million.
Bridges, public infrastructure and neighborhoods, $352 million.
Public-safety facilities, $341 million.
Emergency and other health-care facilities, $171 million.
Public-services outreach and facilities, $255 million.
Housing for elderly and working families, $195 million.
Cultural, library and multicultural educational facilities, $553 million.
To spread awareness, Ms. Arias said, officials and volunteers plan to go to every Rotary club, church and homeowners association. The unit will promote the eight issues together, she said, because all are equally important.
Marlen Preston of the county's water and sewer department agreed, saying the campaign should focus on how the bond can benefit the whole county. "It's hard to calculate what's more important to a community," she said.
Sewers, flood control and bridges are widely used, so those issues will have little trouble winning support, said Dario Moreno, FIU political-science professor and Metropolitan Center director. "Everyone flushes their toilets," he said. "Everyone crosses the bridge. People use sidewalks."
Museums and parks may have trouble drawing favor because they don't have wide appeal and can carry a higher price, Mr. Moreno said.
University of Florida political-science professor Daniel Smith said traditional measures typically receive more support from voters. But splitting the bond into eight parts allows officials to go into detailed explanations of different issues to seek support.
County officials should consider that voters will face a national election and at least eight statewide issues, Mr. Smith said. Issues can be added until Sept. 3, the deadline for receiving ballot items from the state.
"Voters tend to not vote or vote 'no' at the end of a long ballot," Mr. Smith said. He suggested that the issue may have had a better chance of passing during a primary election.
After the bond issue was approved for the ballot, Ms. Arias said, the county opted for the grassroots campaign instead of traditional marketing.
"How can you explain a complicated issue like the bond in a 30-second radio ad?" she said.
After three years of committee recommendations, dozens of discussions and several town-hall meetings, Miami-Dade County officials are putting a $2.9 General Obligation Bond on November's ballot.
The bond program could provide funds to improve infrastructure and is patterned after 1972's Decade of Progress program, which financed much of the county's existing infrastructure as well as improvements to MetroZoo, public libraries and roads, county officials said.
"I will say unequivocally those regional parks, libraries, sewers and other facilities helped carry this community into a new century," said Merrett Stierheim, who became county manager in 1976 and oversaw use of the previous bond. He said the bond helped the county absorb a record number of new residents, including thousands of refugees.
As the community continued to grow, Mr. Stierheim said, he recommended extending a $1.5 billion bond in a memo to the county commission when his term as county manager ended in February 2001.
Mr. Stierheim, who oversaw the Decade of Progress program in the 1970s and 1980s, said in the 2001 memo that it had been 30 years since voters approved an extensive countywide capital-development program financed with bonds. Two bond programs for specific improvement projects were winding down, and the county's general-obligation debt costs were dropping.
If passed by voters, a new bond would enable the county to generate sufficient capacity to finance $1.5 billion in public facilities and infrastructure without a tax-increase commitment for the existing debt-service millage based on conservative growth estimates of future property taxes, Mr. Stierheim said.
The county had recorded several capital projects that were needed to maintain and improve the quality of the county's neighborhoods, economy and quality of life as the county continued to grow, he said.
"The importance of this bond issue cannot be overstated," he said in a recent interview.
Last year, County Manager George Burgess, an assistant during Mr. Stierheim's regime, assembled a task force to research issues voters would want addressed in a new bond program. Beginning in January, the task force attended 100 town-hall meetings with civic leaders and community members across the county and recorded their requests.
The town-hall meetings produced a list of $7 billion worth of improvements, but county officials reduced the list to a size that would maintain the current millage rate for debt service.
The county wanted to leverage the debt that was already paid off on previous bonds, said Victoria Arias, public-affairs manager for the county-appointed bond unit.
After the list was narrowed, the commission split it into eight general categories because of a Florida law that requires voters to be able to match all of the improvement projects with the funds on which they are designated.
At a July commission meeting, County Attorney Murray Greenberg said Florida courts repeatedly have ruled that public officials cannot ask the public to vote on a single bond issue in which the money would be used for numerous unrelated causes.
Bond items had to be combined into categories that have a relationship so voters will have a chance to pick and choose items, he said.
The Florida Constitution is strict in making sure voters know what issues they are voting on, said Dario Moreno, Florida International University political-science professor and director of the Metropolitan Center.
"It's hard to argue that the electorate should not have a chance to pick and choose," he said, adding that citizens have been following the issue closely and will make their decisions accordingly.
Daniel Smith, associate political-science professor at the University of Florida, said the bond will do much better if it is split into eight parts that explain what voters are deciding than lumping measures like museums and parks with infrastructure and sewer needs.
"Voters like to see where their money is going," he said, adding that high-interest issues that affect a large population tend to do better than issues with lower profiles. "And some special-interest groups are happy to see them apart. They don't want to be dragged down by one measure."
County officials should consider that voters will face a national election and more than eight statewide issues on the November ballot, Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Moreno, on the other hand, said putting the bond on November's ballot is a good move. In a March election, he said, only a small portion of the population - composed mostly of citizens in favor of the bond - would turn out to vote.
The November ballot, which includes a presidential race, will attract up to 70% of registered voters, compared to a typical turnout of 12%, he said.
More than 984,000 residents are registered to vote in the county, Seth Kaplan, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade Elections Department, said this week. The deadline for citizens to register to vote is Oct. 4.
If voters approve the bond program in November, the projects would begin immediately and continue for up to 15 years, according to county documents.
But residents would have to be patient for approved measures to take effect, Mr. Stierheim said. The county would have to work on design plans, put out bids and negotiate contracts for years before the public would use facilities. For example, Metrorail was part of the 1972 bond, but it took years to build and test it before passengers began riding in 1985, he said.
But the current issue is promotion of the bond, Mr. Stierheim said. All county commissioners need to campaign in their districts because if the public doesn't understand the importance of the bond, it will be voted down and the community will suffer, he said.
"I certainly support the issue, and I hope that the bond passes," Mr. Stierheim said. "But it's going to take a lot of hard work."
The referendum will ask voters to invest in their future at a cost to taxpayers of about $20 per year on the average homestead property, assessed at $127,500, according to county documents.
If the eight ballot questions are not approved, taxpayers would see their annual property taxes decrease by a similar amount. But when the millage is lost, county officials can't campaign on the promise that taxes won't increase, Mr. Stierheim said.
Miami residents have been paying the current millage for many years, creating a psychological advantage for approving the bond before the millage rate is lost, Mr. Stierheim said.
"Anytime you go to referendum and talk about the 'T' word, it's a hard sell," he said. "But when you don't have enough libraries, water and sewer facilities and those types of things, the quality of life as we know it suffers."