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It was bound to happen. Mayor Carlos Gimenez just could not leave office without pretending to “solve” the very problem that he has created by misusing, during the last decade, the “half-cent” tax.
This is really a three-act play, with a classic bait-and-switch denouement.
INTRODUCTION TO PLAY:
By now everyone knows, but it bears repeating, that since 2008-9, the county has hoodwinked the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust (CITT), which is legally charged with using the half-cent sales tax (producing more than a quarter billion dollars each year) into the maintenance and operation of the existing Metrorail/Metrobus system, instead of using it to expand the system by adding five new rail corridors and 635 new buses.
Last August, the CITT voted to rescind the agreement that allowed that misuse of funds. Faced with that, and with a lawsuit filed by Gables Vice-Mayor Vince Lago, former Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner, and citizen-activist Deltravis Williams, that Gimenez finally agreed to not continue using that money for the wrong purposes. But there was a catch: He also said it’s really only $9 million, instead of the $90 million that everyone sees clearly is being misspent.
Act one takes us back to 2016, when Gimenez ran for reelection on a platform of building the $3.6 billion SMART plan, which the County Commission had approved unanimously. It was really a simple calculation: The half cent produces about $275 million a year, of which about $100 million are obligated in bonds (loans) to pay for improvements to the system, such as the 3.4 mile Orange line, which connects the airport to the existing Earlington Heights station. Another $55 million are pledged to the cities, which is mostly used for the very successful system of trolleys, initiated first by Coral Gables, then Miami and now enormously popular in Miami Beach.
Note that the total number of trolley passengers, at 14 million/year and growing rapidly, will soon eclipse the total number of passengers on the Metrorail. Why? Well, the trolleys are not only attractive, small, and dependable, but also – and most importantly – Free.
Pick your (beneficial) poison as to which of those four factors is more important.
Hint: Follow the money.
Right after he’s elected in November of 2016, and with nice trains in his campaign ads, Gimenez surprises the members of the countywide Fiscal Solutions committee (of which I am a member) on a Monday morning in which he says we’re not building the SMART plan at all, because (1) there is no money and (2) trains are “nineteenth century” technology and no longer needed. But wait, his rather weird opinion on that front cannot eclipse the mandate of the voters, who supported the half-cent surcharge in 2002 based on a promise of 89 new miles of rail and 635 new buses.
Note: My own response to No. (2) above was to state on social media that electricity is also 19th century technology and that the wheel was invented 3,500 years ago….
As to No. (1), well the reason there is no money, in Gimenez’s mind, is that he spent it to balance a budget that is bloated with 4,283 managers/supervisors, to run an enterprise that has a fixed demand, fixes prices, and has no competition. (I recently posted a number that will knock my reader off his chair: The County has almost 4,000 employees who make more than $100,000 a year! I need not ask you, my reader, how hard it is to make that in the private sector, where you have no job security, no guaranteed pensions, and no governmental immunity from lawsuits if you happen to be a professional…)
Let me begin Act Three by explaining that although the mayor touts his “having not increased taxes,” the fact of the matter is that he has not increased the millage rate, but has taken advantage of the rapidly growing tax base of the county to increase the tax revenues by about $630 million each year since the low point in 2011-12. So if your property happens to be in an area coveted by other folks (i.e. if it’s close to the major workplace – downtown, as is the Roads, North Grove, West Brickell, and Omni – or in downtown itself, as well as many other areas of the county), your taxes have gone up enormously during his tenure, controlled only by the Save Our Homes amendment that never allows more than a 3% increase in valuation.
To add insult to injury, Gimenez has extended his power grab to the chairmanship of the MDX. Now this agency nets about $230 million in toll monies, which makes life impossible for the working middle class that uses roads built a quarter century ago and which would have been in excellent shape, were it not for to the constant construction that causes even more congestion than would be normal during rush hour.
Ignoring the entire commission, which passed a resolution calling for the use of all excess revenues of the MDX (which, like the CITT, has about $110 million pledged to prior capital improvements, but still more than $100 million available, if all new projects were stopped) to fund a component of the SMART plan called the “East-West Connector” and the state legislature, which passed laws with the same objective, Gimenez instead proposed using a billion dollars in New Tolls, including three years of existing tolls, to fund a Turnpike Extension into the wetlands.
This concept is mired by environmental lawsuits and the need to acquire all kinds of new properties from private parties, since the right-of-way is not wholly owned by the county or the state.
(Imagine the eminent domain battles that await us.)
On his way out of office, and pressed by an impatient legislature, Gimenez comes up with the idea of grabbing more power/revenues for a new version of the MDX, to wit: the part of the Florida Turnpike that lies within Miami-Dade County. Needless to say, this is pure fantasy, as the legislature (with equal voices on both sides of the aisle), is actually getting ready to divest Gimenez of any power over any transit funds – whether from tolls or from the half-cent surcharge. Former Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera said it best: “They can’t seem [to] run their existing infrastructure responsibly and efficiently so let’s give them more…”
This is plain delusional. Yet Gimenez comes up with all kinds of 30-year calculations as to how, over the long run, we somehow will benefit when the tolls are reduced by the new, multi-jurisdictional authority (which includes the county mayor, plus four mayors of cities along the Turnpike, but not the rest of the 35 mayors in the county, let alone representatives of the unincorporated areas, which are the least served by trolleys).
This entire play is the definition of chutzpah. In Spanish we call it “gandinga.” It is preposterous, self-serving, and deceitful. It is the “last hurrah” from someone who has not heard the call of 2.8 million citizens who cry out for affordable, efficient mass transit.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier L. Suarez can be reached at 305-669-4003 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.