Turn off the spigot that leaks hijacked transit tax funds
By Michael Lewis
A sales tax that voters passed to expand transit has been stolen and subverted to general county revenue. A citizens' initiative should eliminate it.
The county commission just formalized the bait-and-switch. Now only 10% of receipts remain to do what the whole tax was guaranteed to do, and even that 10% will pay off past bonds, not build for the future.
It's fraud. But while Bernard Madoff may get 150 years, they don't jail county officials for lying. So taxpayers should take matters into their own hands and cut off the flow of hijacked tax revenue now.
Background: In 2002, when Alex Penelas was king of Miami-Dade, he sold us a half percent tax to expand our woeful Metrorail system, linking to the main campus of Florida International University, the airport, the seaport, maybe even Miami Beach, and running up to Broward County.
There was more. Every project the tax would build was listed.
Because nobody trusted county government, Mayor Penelas pledged a firewall would protect the funds: a totally independent trust would dole out the cash properly.
But as soon as voters created the tax, the county shattered the promises, one by one.
First, instead of an independent trust, commissioners decided to appoint the team and control its every step. They planned to spend the money first, then seek a retroactive OK.
Then, commissioners delayed naming members, making key spending moves before the trust was formed. One commissioner waited almost a year to name her delegate.
Meanwhile, the commission hijacked most of the money meant to build transit to maintain what we already had. The administration admitted it had never had enough money to run the present system.
After that, it admitted the tax funds, even if properly used, would never do most of what voters were promised.
Finally, this month the commission voted to formalize the theft of 90% of the trust money to operate the present system, meaning virtually nothing the tax was intended for will ever exist.
Meanwhile, some state legislators have decided to be fair to communities that are frozen out of the small local share of transit tax receipts and get them a slice of the remaining pie.
That's nice, even praiseworthy. But it misses the heart of the issue.
Voters taxed themselves because officials promised to expand transit. Instead, the sales tax is paying to exterminate bugs in buses and all manner of routine chores that funds already on hand should have funded.
And as all this goes on, we're due federal stimulus aid for transportation. We can pray the county uses those funds properly. But don't bet on it.
What to do? Citizens need to rise up and organize a referendum to eliminate the tax that officials misappropriated.
Of course, commissioners will moan that they need the $180 million a year from the sales tax just to keep the minimal system that we already have going. Better something than nothing.
But we all know that money the county now spends elsewhere can be used to run transit.
And, if the commission didn't want to cut its other spending to maintain transit at the level it now achieves via hijacked tax funds, it could raise millage. Now, it's just tapping a tax we were credulous enough to levy on ourselves.
Repealing the transit sales tax is not only sensible in the face of misappropriation, it's even patriotic.
A lack of consumer spending is impeding the nation's economy. We could help increase consumption locally by removing an unnecessary tax on purchases.
Just like voters, this newspaper was duped by pledges that a trust would protect the transit tax and that receipts would do what was promised. We believed that general revenues would keep the system up and running. We supported the tax instead of seeing through half-truths and outright lies.
We should have recalled the bait-and-switch of Florida's lottery. Voters were told its profits would go to education. They did. But then the state shifted its former education funds to other uses.
Handed a transit sales tax, Miami-Dade County could use its former transportation funds for other things as well.
Note also the Performing Arts Center. Commissioners swore that if they funded construction, public resources would never pay a penny of operating costs. We've been paying $8 million to $10 million a year to subsidize operations since nearly day one.
Promises have become promises broken, over and over.
Now it's payback time.
What commissioner will admit failure of the transit tax and initiate a repeal? Probably none.
That leaves it to the public.
Who among us has the courage, the energy and the resources to begin the fight and win it?
The time is now. The longer the tax lingers, the more it becomes a permanent fixture.
We cannot punish Mayor Penelas, because he's gone. Some commissioners are also new.
But we can let those who just finished hijacking the transit tax know we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore. We're tired of being lied to and pushed around by county government.
Repeal the transit tax now.