Miami-Dade Transit surtax funds a step closer to being rerouted to budget
By Risa Polansky
Revenue from a tax voters agreed to self impose to fund new transportation projects could soon be rerouted to patch holes in Miami-Dade Transit's budget.
The county's Transit Committee voted last week to allow most of the proceeds from the voter-approved half-cent surtax contribute to transit operations and maintenance rather than exclusively new projects.
Should the full county commission OK the measure, Miami-Dade municipalities would continue receiving 20% of the total tax revenue for their own transit initiatives, and the county would set aside at least 10% of what's left after that for capital expansions as the surtax was meant to fund.
The rest would be free game for operational needs. The measure provides also that the county will continue to increase its contribution to the transit department budget by at least 3.5% a year.
Supporters see it as a compromise.
But opponents insist the move is a betrayal to voters, predicting it will invite lawsuits or even a repeal of the half-cent surtax.
The measure "will be perceived by the voters as a money-grab by transit," said Paul Schwiep, a member of the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust charged with overseeing transit projects tied to the half-percent surtax.
He warned commissioners that "litigation could result. The [surtax] ballot language was clear. You can't un-ring that bell."
Barbara Walters, an officer on the Metropolitan Planning Organization's Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee, echoed his fears.
"I am totally and adamantly against any kind of unification [of funds]," she said, also predicting a lawsuit "that will be so unstoppable and so quick that nobody is going to know what happened."
Mr. Schwiep said he sympathizes with the transit department's funding issues — it could face a multi-billion dollar gap over 30 years in trying to deliver all promised transportation projects while maintaining existing service — but insisted officials should keep searching for a better solution.
"I appreciate that transit needs funding — they're doing a lot with a little — but giving them the surtax funds isn't the answer," he said.
Added transportation trust member Jim Reeder, "this basically does a lot of things that ain't good."
They pleaded for more time to come up with other ideas.
But not all trust members opposed the move to mingle most of the funds.
The proposal passed in a trust vote 5-4.
"I believe what you have before you is a reasonable compromise to what is needed," member Anna Ward told commissioners.
Keeping all of the surtax funds separate from the general transit budget threatens the future of existing, productive transit systems, as well as jeopardizes planned new projects, she said.
In passing the measure at the trust, she said, "we had the future in mind."
Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who sponsored the new measure, also said she feared keeping the pots of money completely separate would force the county to kill well-used bus routes.
Katy Sorenson, another commissioner on the transit committee, called it "kind of a no-win situation."
But she said it makes little sense to devote a needed funding source only to new projects without concern for maintaining what exists.
"We have to be able to adapt to changing circumstances, changing needs," she said.
Commissioner Sally Heyman agreed.
"You must care for what exists or you're never going to expand because you're not going to have what was in place," she said, brushing off lawsuit fears.
"To be threatened by litigation — welcome to modern society on anything."
Transit Director Harpal Kapoor spoke in favor of the proposal.
"The intent here is to have a healthy transit system" and still set aside a reserve for future capital projects.
"This helps us for the bonding capacities, for debt service," he said.
Added Assistant County Manager Ysela Llort: "The intent of this is to absolutely ensure there's a capital fund going forward to do the expansion projects that we've talked about."
However, in recent months county officials have openly acknowledged project plans may have to change due to funding constraints, many calling the People's Transportation Plan of surtax-funded projects "over promised."
Only Transit Committee Chair Dorrin Rolle questioned the proposed diversion of the money, asking staffers how much the 10% set-aside for capital expansion would equate to this year.
The answer: about $10 million.
"That's where I run into a snag," Mr. Rolle said, doubting 10% would be enough.
David Clodfelter, chief of budget, audit and reporting for Miami-Dade Transit, called it "a very healthy amount toward the future bonding of debt service for the next year or the next issuance of bonds for whatever projects are decided to go forth."
Still, Mr. Rolle cast the lone vote against mingling most of the surtax money.
The full commission is to consider the measure Jan. 20.