Our officials can, and do, promise us the moon with impunity
By Michael Lewis
Little wonder faith in local leaders sits so low: their grand promises seldom stand up.
Election promises can be empty. But shouldn't officials keep pledges once in office?
Sadly, we often get bamboozled. And in a county with huge population shifts, who's left to make officials explain why a promise evaporated? Newcomers never heard the malarkey back when, calling for some grand scheme.
Who recalls at the polls that past promises passed into paradise as soon as some project also passed? With community amnesia, officials can commit bait and switch with impunity.
Recall an agreement between Miami-Dade and the City of Miami on a multi-billion-dollar cornucopia of questionable projects dubbed the mega-plan?
It specified that the deal would free funds once used to pay debt for the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts to instead fund a baseball stadium.
As we reported last week, officials are rewriting history to say that the deal instead will funnel none of that pot of gold to the stadium but $143 million more to the arts center and $27 million to the New World Symphony's rising Miami Beach home. They say the words on paper that the money would go to baseball always meant the arts instead.
Sheer gall! The arts spending is a far better cause, but that doesn't erase the massive bait and switch.
And it's just one of many wink-and-nod con games by local wheelers and dealers:
nWhen the arts center first passed, commissioners pledged it wouldn't get a penny of taxes to operate. This $143 million infusion is tax money, as is the other nearly $8 million a year the county gives the center.
nSome of the $143 million is to endow the center. Center organizers pledged from day one to privately endow $21 million before the center could open. Endowment is still under $4 million.
The first director vowed the arts center would break even from day one, then turn profits. Of course, once it's constructed there's no way to enforce that ridiculous pledge, or the pledge that an endowment would be privately funded, or the pledge that the center wouldn't operate using taxes.
nThe principle applies too at Miami International Airport, where a promised makeover of less than $2 billion is well past $6 billion and counting. But those who promised are long gone, and once work begins costs keep rising.
Many public projects are lowballed, then soar out of budgetary control. Once work starts, we're stuck. But other promises are subverted too:
The arts center was to build parking. Never did.
Just as we never saw an arts center garage, we never saw the soccer fields behind AmericanAirlines Arena that were in every drawing — drawings of a low-rise waterfront project, not the towering arena we built.
The county was to get slices of arena profits. We're still waiting.
Miami vowed the $3.25 million Claude Pepper Fountain in Bayfront Park would constantly spew artistic water displays but never funded them. It ripped out the mechanism and often shut down the whole fountain, which for a while became part of a balloon ride.
Also not running are new rail routes that a 2002 half-percent transit tax was to build. Turns out far more was promised than the tax could ever have done.
Worse, officials who promised a tax would fund only new operations shifted up to 90% of receipts to maintain what we already had, egregious bait and switch.
The county could grab the tax money only because it also derailed a pledge that a trust would control the receipts. Once voters approved the tax, commissioners decided they would misspend the money themselves.
nNext, in 2004, came $2.9 billion in general obligation bonds that voters approved with a promise of outside control that the county subverted. Commissioners juggle this money too.
nWhen a Miami fire fee was found illegal, the city pledged to refund $100 million to payers. Instead, it cut a deal to give $7 million to seven persons — money they'd never paid in the first place — and nothing to anyone else.
nWhen the city got caught in the secret deal, officials again promised to return the money. But payers got less than 20 cents on the dollar.
This list of shame by no means catalogs all promises unheeded but shows common threads:
Most broken promises weren't codified. Officials said, wrote, implied, repeated, pledged and argued them, but seldom wrote them into legislation or contracts.
Those who initiated the now-broken vows could count on very short public memories.
nWhen they couldn't count on short memories they could rely on being gone from office when broken promises came home to roost.
There's always a way to weasel out of a commitment that's not law. Just because an agreement said "the city and county acknowledge that these funds are necessary to provide for the city and county contributions to the Baseball Project" doesn't mean that these very funds are to go to the Baseball Project. They're just necessary. Thin excuse!
Once work starts there's no backing out. When steel begins rising, the deal can begin changing.
New circumstances always arise, and new circumstances always excuse broken pledges. When county cash to clean buses ran short, taxes pledged to new rail lines were used with impunity.
So, how can the public buffer itself from the broken promise syndrome?
First, remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it's probably not true.
There was no chance a massive arts center could break even from the outset and then pile up profits. Where in the world does that happen?
Second, you can count on the fingers of one hand important public projects here that hit budget. Doubt all cost projections.
Third, and more important, any promise by public officials that's not detailed in legislation is only a hope or a sales pitch.
Fourth, even legislation can be subverted, as in the transit tax misuse. But without legislation, a promise is at best a desire of some transitory official who's not likely to have any say when the rubber hits the road.
Officials who pledged the arts center would never use tax money for operations or endowment and that it would build ample parking are long gone. And none of those pledges ever came via law or contract.
Remember, if it isn't signed, sealed and delivered, no government promise is worth the paper it's not written on.