Giving newer incorporated municipalities share of transportation surtax a "fairness principle,' Rep. Braynon says
By Risa Polansky
Miami-Dade's half-percent transportation surtax, which now backs new county projects, systems maintenance and transportation initiatives in most municipalities, could soon be spread thinner.
Now, 20% of the surtax's proceeds flow directly to municipalities for local transportation projects — but only to cities and towns that existed when voters approved the tax in 2002.
Miami Gardens, Doral and Cutler Bay were incorporated later, and though residents there pay the surtax, the municipalities aren't party to a share of the 20% set-aside.
Two Miami-Dade state legislators are pushing to make the surtax inclusive.
Rep. Oscar Braynon II and Sen. Frederica S. Wilson late last month each proposed bills forbidding the county from withholding surtax proceeds from municipalities incorporated after voters approved the tax and requiring the county to retroactively reimburse the municipalities for what they've missed out on over the years, effective July 1.
If passed, the change would come soon after a major county commission-approved revamp last week that allows surtax proceeds be used for operations and maintenance rather than solely new projects.
The commission agreed to mingle the funds with the general transit budget in the face of a potential multi-billion-dollar transit funding gap forecasted over the next 30 years.
Now, 10% of surtax proceeds is set aside for capital projects, 20% is passed to municipalities and the rest is free game for maintenance and operations needs.
Supporters say the change was necessary to help right-size the financially deficient transit agency. They hope a more stable outlook will persuade the federal government to contribute to new projects here.
Opponents, who call the move a "bait and switch," fear new transit systems will never be built now that the bulk of once-dedicated money is free for other use.
Adding three municipalities to the mix could be seen as another strain on the surtax pot.
Rep. Braynon said the county's funding woes are a "whole different issue."
"I don't think it's related," he said, calling his move "a fairness principle."
It's unclear whether the now-excluded municipalities' share would come from the 20% already set aside for localities or from the county's portion.
An existing ordinance gives municipalities the right to negotiate with the county to secure a pro-rata share of surtax proceeds.
It stipulates the money cannot come from the 20% reserved for the municipalities that existed at the time, meaning the newer localities' share would come from the countywide pot under that rule.
Mr. Braynon acknowledged the measure — it's "saying that it doesn't come from the share of the cities that are already sharing the tax" — and said "all this bill says is that the county cannot withhold the amount that it's supposed to pay to these cities."
The point is simply "to make sure it [the money] really comes through," he said.
Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust staffers are running numbers for both scenarios, said Charles Scurr, executive director of the trust, which oversees surtax spending.
Depending on whether the municipalities' share would come from the 20% set-aside or from the county portion, Miami Gardens would collect about $2.1 million to $2.2 million annually, Doral $660,000 to $695,000 and Cutler Bay about $780,000 to $815,000, he said, acknowledging that "this is not an insignificant matter."
County Commissioner and Transit, Infrastructure and Roads Committee Chair Barbara Jordan was under the impression the now-excluded municipalities, if included, would share in the 20% reserved for cities and said that that would mean each local government would then receive less money.
But in the end, she said, it comes down to fairness.
"I feel that it's unfair for those cities not to receive the benefit — after all, their tax dollars go toward improving transit, as well," she said.
Transportation Trust Chair Linda Zilber said the same — especially given the commission's recent decision to permit surtax fund support for existing projects.
"Since the county is taking over so much of our money, I think they should appropriate money for the cities that were not included," she said.
Ms. Zilber said she believes mingling the majority of the surtax funds with the general transit budget dooms the new projects regardless.
"If we're only going to get 10% of the money for expansion, I mean, come on — I don't know if I'll be alive by the time we have enough money to do something with it," she said.
Either way, the trust can't decide whether to include the left-out municipalities, Ms. Zilber said — that's up to Miami-Dade officials.
The county did not provide an administrator for comment after repeated requests to multiple communications staffers.
The legislators say they had to step in from Tallahassee because of inaction on the county level.
"As a former city councilman in Miami Gardens, I know that we were trying [to receive a share] in the City of Miami Gardens and have been continuing," but the efforts have not gone far, Rep. Braynon said.
Sen. Wilson said the same.
"We feel that if we can do something in Tallahassee, it will force the hands of Miami-Dade County," she said.
Miami Gardens City Manager Danny O. Crew said the city has long attempted to work with the county to receive a share of the surtax proceeds, but "to no avail."
The city council authorized the administration to hire an attorney to sue, he said, but the proposed state legislation would negate the need.
The bill "would resolve the problem, and it would give the cities that don't get their fair share of the tax [the chance] to spend on local needs," Mr. Crew said.
Cutler Bay Town Manager Steve Alexander said town officials are keeping an eye on the proposed legislation but have not taken a position on it. The county has done well using surtax funds for projects in the area even without a dedicated share, he said.
A Doral spokesman did not return a call for comment.