| <36>Bond issue's benefits outweigh county commission's waste
<01>By Michael Lewis
On a shopping trip, you know what you need, how much you'll spend and what you'll use your purchases for. You don't plan that way for a stop at the convenience store, but you'd certainly consider those topics on an expedition that could cost $7 billion or so.
That's the shopping trip Miami-Dade County voters will take Nov. 2 when they get to the bottom of their ballots and confront eight massive bonding questions that aren't in the impulse-spending category.
The county's appointed managers thoughtfully spent months and millions of dollars fine-tuning a shopping list designed to meet infrastructure needs for a half-century. They divided their list into eight topical chunks to meet a legal requirement that we not be asked to vote on a grab bag of unrelated spending.
Our eight propositions, unfortunately, appear on the ballot only in a summary that allows a lot of fat to slip in undetected. In most cases, even a close reading of the county's 44-page summary will reveal fat only to experts.
That said, no informed citizen should object to most projects included in Questions 1-7. Question 8, dealing with cultural facilities and the subject of intense lobbying, will be examined in a future column.
The first seven questions are chock full of things that meet real needs and would bolster our economy - strengthening the tax base and allowing us to pay for what we're about to get.
Those propositions would shore up water, sewer and flood-control systems; improve parks; build bridges, walkways and bikeways; build courthouses, justice and detention centers and police and fire facilities; improve emergency and health-care facilities; build community and neighborhood centers; and build elderly and family housing.
Further, these projects are spread countywide, bringing our poorer areas the public facilities we should consider basic to a decent life.
In concept, it's hard to disagree with any of these seven, though in most cases, few proponent groups are pushing for passage. Sewers and jails have few friends, but they're vital nonetheless.
We could pick apart individual items. It would be easy to tie some to the commissioners who got them shoved into the program, ballooning the cost of a bond issue that is officially $2.925 billion but might triple that by the time bonds are repaid in mid-century.
We could live without a number of projects. But would we and our children and their children live as well? And would this community be able to attract and retain and expand the businesses that create the jobs that pay the salaries that will let us and our children and their children live better - and be able to pay off the bonds?
For most informed citizens, the first seven questions rate a resounding "yes" - yet many thoughtful voters are teetering on "no."
Those who will vote "yes" say we need the infrastructure for our future, we can afford it now, the project lists seem reasonable, and although the county is likely to waste millions by awarding contracts based on something other than merit, they will stomach the loss to achieve the benefits.
Those who plan to vote "no" on the seven agree with everything the "yes" voters say but think the county commission's waste will outweigh the merits. Further, they say, the commission's intractable stance against citizen oversight of bond revenues seals their opposition.
There it is: Informed voters agree on the merits but split on stewardship, or lack thereof, of billions that would become playtoys of commissioners to whom contracts are often the link to campaign funds or more.
Sadly, we're going to have to risk that loss of millions, letting some of our hard-won infrastructure purchases fall off the truck on the trip from bonding to public use.
Any improvement in facilities in this county passes through commission hands. The commission plays with contracts as though they were written in Monopoly money rather than tax dollars, so some of our capital spending is likely to go down a rathole.
There are just three ways to avert commission meddling in bond-financed contracts:
1. Vote these seven questions down, thus punishing ourselves and our children and their children for the foibles of the commission. That comes under the heading of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.
2. Use a referendum to take contract control away from commissioners and turn it over to the mayor, professional administrators or some oversight panel. Any of the latter, of course, might do as badly as commissioners - but perfecting that degree of self-interested meddling would be hard.
3. Elect better commissioners - but that would require raising salaries above $6,000 and mitigating against the parochialism and territoriality district elections now trigger.
We'd be wise not to punish generations ahead. Vote now for those first seven packages of improvements, then either get contracts out of commissioners' hands or get current commissioners out of office.
This is not, as propagandists suggest, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to add infrastructure. But it's easiest to get now because we are retiring old bonds (see last week's column at www.miamitodaynews.com for details).
If we voted "no," we'd save tax money and show those profligate commissioners a thing or two. But we'd be doing that out of spite, ignoring the true needs of a burgeoning player on the world stage that cannot show off its best face without a partial facelift.
And we'll never attract the high-paying jobs we need if large parts of our community lack sewers and sidewalks and parks. World-class companies seek world-class communities, and world class extends beyond the richest slice of our county - it's got to be everywhere.
By and large, the first seven bond questions are not about luxuries - unless you think draining floodwater or repairing beach erosion or putting restrooms in parks are luxuries in a first-world community.
The first seven bond questions truly are an expensive shopping trip, but they meet our needs, we can afford to meet those needs and even the worst commission meddling isn't reason enough to keep western Miami-Dade flooded or Miami Beach firefighters using a condemned fire station or areas countywide without sidewalks.
Let's go shopping - and then find a way to keep too much from falling off the truck on the way home.