Commission, media, majority all silent on 56% tax hike
By Michael Lewis
Without a word of debate and in less than one minute, Miami-Dade commissioners voted last week to raise every property owner's debt service tax rate this year 56% — and we'll keep paying for it for decades.
Clearly, the fix was in. The mayor and manager recommended the same rate as last year, but the manager in private huddles pushed the 56% jump to let the county issue $350 million in general obligation bonds.
Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who carried the spear for the manager, asked for the massive rate increase, saying in his motion it would create an average of 1,870 jobs a year for five years.
Nobody even hinted at another impact: that bonds last 30 years and this year's vote might substantially raise the amount every taxpayer will pay for a generation or two, not just this year.
No, nobody said a word.
Many interests, however, will get some slice of the bond funds so can be counted on to push for the soaring tax rate when it comes up for the final vote on the county's tax program.
By law commissioners can't further raise these rates but can lower them as much as they like — if they like.
Nobody so far has printed a word of this.
To be sure, nobody at the meeting mentioned 56% — and nobody will. It's just an itty-bitty increase from 0.285 mils to 0.445. But on a non-homesteaded property assessed at $1 million, that tax alone jumps from $285 to a year $445.
Mr. Barreiro also successfully pushed to raise the rate the manager and mayor requested for library taxes.
You'll find out about these and the other rate increases officially when notices to property owners are mailed Aug. 24. Then commissioners hold two September hearings. If administrators sense objections to a 56% hike in a pained economy, count on a star-studded lineup of beneficiaries like museums and others to swear that everyone loves this tax hike.
For the record, Carlos Gimenez, Javier Souto and Joe A. Martinez did vote against the 56% rate jump.
Mr. Gimenez and Mr. Souto also voted against the 12.2% increase tacked onto operating millage, the county's largest slice of every tax bill. (So did Katy Sorenson, but that's only because she wanted to raise rates even more as her final term ends. "It's a pretty barebones budget," she lamented. "It concerns me.")
Mr. Souto, who clearly is not County Manager George Burgess's favorite, and vice versa, implied that commissioners felt abnormal pressures to pass double-digit increases after Mayor Carlos Alvarez had sent them a message beginning "I have prepared a no tax increase budget" that was really a 12.2% operating rate hike.
Mr. Souto said the administration's budget process resembled "the parade of horribles" the legislature heard when he was a senator, that "the kids are going to die, the parks — the grass is going to cover you."
While the administration of course trots out perils each time it seeks to remain as bloated as possible, Mr. Souto had a refreshingly different take on reality:
"When we were dancing with money, when the boom was going on, we failed to reserve and we failed to take that in consideration, and consequently instead of saving money and being thrifty and handling the items properly, we engaged into the creation of departments and more departments and more staff. And so consequently we don't have money."
So, Mr. Souto said, now the county must face reality.
"We have so many people making six figures in this administration, in this government that we have." Departments, he said, should be weeded out instead of raising taxes.
Thanks, Mr. Souto, for speaking up. The so-far silent majority agrees.
"We have been living high on the hog for many, many, many years and this is not any way to run a business," he told fellow commissioners.
"The people pay our salaries. We could save millions and millions of dollars and instead of having 54 or so departments have 20 departments or maybe less than that that we should have."
Instead, Mr. Souto said, the county is willing to dig into taxpayers' pockets, unconscionable in a recession-ravaged economy.
That's his take on it as a commissioner, that "we have an appetite for pheasant and a pocketbook for picadillo."
As my friend John, who listened in, later remarked, there is no free lunch — not even picadillo. If government spends money, it takes it from us, folks.
So why, John asked, does the county refer to a 12.2% rate increase as a rollback budget when it's really rolling us over and picking our pockets for more?
Mr. Souto asked the same, but nobody bothered to answer. They never do when he deviates from the party line — they just roll their eyes.
And for speaking out again, will he again be targeted?
"I hope the administration won't fire people as a punishment to those of us who express these views," he said.
If so, he threatened to turn to the media — who didn't report a word of what he said any more than mentioning a 56% rate increase. Probably just rolled their eyes — and didn't notice the silently soaring tax rate.