Anti-foreclosure bid is a textbook on county's deficiencies
By Michael Lewis
No single issue embodies everything that's wrong with Miami-Dade's government, but a bid for a $62 million federal lifeline for homeowners facing foreclosure sure comes close.
In that one proper effort, the county nonetheless managed to act parochially, misjudge the situation, wander leaderless, grandstand, propose a bait-and-switch, mishandle a contract and ignore the public's interests.
Other than undue influence of special interests and tensions between administrators and commission, it illustrates every major county shortcoming.
We reported the ugly blow by blow last week. In case you missed it, here's a quick-and-dirty (and I do mean dirty) summary.
The county commission was to seek federal aid for homeowners who can't pay mortgages. It must use the money in moderate- to low-income areas with high foreclosure rates. County officials used a formula to determine those areas as the feds require. Deadline to apply was Dec. 1.
Simple as that sounds, it raised a furor because the feds have allocated only enough for 578 housing units in a county that has had 7,000 recent foreclosures.
The problem: how to divide a small pie among 13 ravenous mouths.
Commissioners used a single criterion: What do I get for my district? Several said they weren't looking to be parochial — and proceeded to make parochialism the touchstone. Two even voted against taking the federal cash because their districts wouldn't benefit.
This county used to have commissioners in nine districts but elected by all county voters. Those nine had to worry about everyone to get reelected. Today, concerns of the 13 commissioners stop at the district line, to the detriment of all residents.
Some commissioners didn't understand the rules of mortgage relief, which require lenders to take significant losses, and they didn't care to. If the federal requirements didn't help them, they didn't want to hear how the money actually had to be used.
Nobody took the lead to get commissioners on track, either. The mayor is a nonentity with the commission, so don't expect help there. Commissioners themselves lack unity. It's everyone for himself.
Of course, commissioners play to the grandstands, couching parochialism and misunderstanding in terms geared to the audience rather than the issue.
"I don't want to help the lender," said Commissioner Joe Martinez, who wound up voting against a measure that would keep people in their homes. "I want to help Joe and Pete and Paul who own a home."
Mr. Martinez was upset because under the federal rules, the aid package would largely benefit the south part of the county, which has been hardest hit. Doing so, by the way, would funnel money back to lenders who could then spread it throughout the county.
But don't worry, commissioners. County Manager George Burgess stepped in to note that while the county's fund application might focus on its south end, once approved, actual allocation comes back to the commission — implying that commissioners could then divvy up the pie as they like, no matter what the county pledged.
It's this promise-'em-anything stance at which the county excels, again to taxpayers' detriment.
Remember the bait-and-switch of 2002, when we were promised outside oversight and a slew of new rail lines if we voted for a sales tax for transit? As soon as the county got the money it hogtied a transit trust and used the taxes for anything but what was promised.
Remember also a massive bond issue we approved in 2004, when oversight was promised that again became anything but an independent team empowered to do actual spending.
If it works with local voters, why not try the federal government? Promise them south county but give 'em a pie cut up by district. As Mr. Burgess said, "How the money is spent after comes back to this board" — a recipe for a 13-way pie carving that will not only be a switch but a mishandling of a deal with Washington.
And finally, as to public interest, what could ignore it more than commissioners Martinez and Natacha Seijas voting against what they acknowledged was desperately needed aid to homeowners in distress because they wanted more for their own districts? If they couldn't have it, why should anyone?
In the end, the commission did ask for the money. If we get it, commissioners will then be able to deviate from the county's application pledge as they see fit. The result may not look any more like the application than hundreds of millions spent to replace old rail cars looks like the pledge to build new rail lines.
Unfortunately, this is the county in action. Not everyone on every issue, but too many commissioners and officials far too often.
To be fair, Katy Sorenson did remind fellow commissioners that it was more important to get the money — "It may be a drop in the bucket, but it's still better than nothing" — than to debate who gets what, because the division of funds is "not a district issue. It's more of a formula."
On the other hand, she also represents the south part of the county, where the money is to flow.
The problems in the county, though, aren't a matter of good guys or bad guys. Some officials are better, others worse. But the system, not any individual, is the villain.
That and voter toleration of parochialism, lack of knowledge, a leadership void, grandstanding, perpetual bait-and-switch, contract manipulation and trampling on the public's interests.
Could it be that we're just getting what we're willing to put up with?