Dade faced with reneging on another transit funds pledge
By Risa Polansky
When Miami-Dade commissioners voted to use most half-percent transit surtax cash on the existing system rather than expansions, they decreed also that the county would raise its transit outlay by at least 3.5% every year.
But Mayor Carlos Alvarez's proposed budget keeps general fund transit outlays flat in fiscal 2010.
And Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who sponsored — and took heat for — the surtax spending shift, is unhappy.
She feels "bamboozled, betrayed and every other adjective," she said at a public meeting with commission Chair Dennis Moss last week.
Facing steep transit shortfalls, commissioners this year voted to mingle up to 90% of surtax revenue with general transit funds, apologizing to voters for "overpromising" the sales surtax's potential.
Voters agreed in 2002 to tax themselves one-half percent to fund new transit such as major Metrorail extensions.
Rerouting most surtax revenue to operations and maintenance was necessary to save bus routes and continue providing vital transportation services, Ms. Jordan said — but she might not have supported it without the added commitment to funding the cash-strapped department.
The mayor should never have even recommended reneging, she told Mr. Moss.
"There are some things you don't put on the table," she said.
He agreed, assuring her "I'm with you."
It's up to commissioners to balance a final budget, he said, and in coming weeks they can "buy back" some of Mr. Alvarez's suggested cuts through raising taxes or proposing alternatives.
The promised 3.5% transit funding increase is "one of those services that we need to buy back," Mr. Moss said.
Mr. Alvarez stands by his proposal to keep transit funds flat at $141.3 million. Since the 3.5% increase was in a resolution — and not an ordinance — the mayor and commission have the flexibility to ignore it.
The nearly $4.9 million lost would mean fewer bus miles and operators.
"We are facing a $427 million budget shortfall and no easy way to fill the gap," Mr. Alvarez said via e-mail through a spokesman. "Many of the recommendations in my proposed budget are painful, and this is one of the most painful."
It's not that he doesn't support annual funding to transit — in 2005, he vetoed legislation that didn't include it, the e-mail pointed out.
"However, given the magnitude of the budget shortfall and the current economic realities, all departments were forced to make cuts and forgo enhancements," Mr. Alvarez said.
Plummeting property taxes and other diminished revenue streams are forcing the cuts, he said, affecting not only transit but also parks, culture, public safety and community organizations.
"Keep in mind, in my 2010 proposed budget, the general fund contribution accounts for 33% of transit's budget," Mr. Alvarez said.
Even before the mayor's proposal to forgo the added 3.5% next fiscal year, the surtax revenue rerouting caused a stir.
After it passed, three commissioners tried to spearhead changes to surtax spending and the board that oversees it to restore some voter trust. All failed.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez has vowed to seek a repeal referendum.