After years of broken promises, Miami-Dade fending off tighter rules for transit tax

There’s an escalating battle underway to force Miami-Dade to spend transportation taxes on big projects and stop subsidizing everyday expenses tied to running Metrorail and one of the largest bus fleets in the country.

The battle around one of the rawest subjects of Miami-Dade’s transit fight is being waged on multiple fronts — in Tallahassee, in the courts, and within the county bureaucracy.

Two lawmakers representing Miami-Dade in Tallahassee have bills that would ban any of the county’s operating costs from being paid out of the more than $250 million collected each year from a half-percent sales tax dedicated to transportation.

That’s a far stricter rule than was imposed in 2002 when countywide voters approved the “half-penny” tax to expand Metrorail, buy hundreds of new buses and then cover the added operating expenses that come with new transit lines. Metrorail has grown by a single stop in the 17 years that followed, and the bus fleet has grown by fewer than 75 vehicles.

Next week, county commissioners will consider a demand by a Miami-Dade oversight board to cease spending the transportation tax on routine operations by Oct. 1 — a historic showdown, since the board overseeing the tax has never attempted to undo commission action before.

On Thursday, a judge kept alive a lawsuit by a Coral Gables commissioner demanding an immediate halt to spending nearly $100 million in tax proceeds on operational support for the county’s $590 million transit budget.

“The county failed in its promises to deliver on the half-penny promises,” said Vince Lago, the city commissioner now suing Miami-Dade in Circuit Court. “It’s easy to raid the half-penny instead of finding ways to balance our budget.”

The assaults on Miami-Dade’s current spending plan for transit have been met with promises that the county is on the verge of reimposing the original limits on how the transportation tax could be spent. County commissioners lifted the rules in a controversial 2009 vote, and the changes were endorsed by the transportation board that year, too.

In a Circuit Court hearing Thursday, a county lawyer argued to a judge that commissioners followed the proper procedures in their 2009 rewrite of the projects eligible for a tax that has generated about $2.7 billion since 2002.

Commissioners “followed to a T exactly what the ordinance called for, and amended the list of projects to include the operation and maintenance of the existing transit system,” Miami-Dade lawyer Bruce Libhaber told Judge Spencer Eig during the hearing on the county’s motion to dismiss Lago’s suit.

Eig denied the motion hours later in a brief opinion, allowing the case to proceed to a trial.

The 2009 vote added an amendment to the original “People’s Transportation Plan” presented to voters, which restricted the tax to operation and maintenance bills created by new transit routes and systems. The 2009 amendment declared “any” transit expenses eligible for the tax.

Commissioner Rebeca Sosa this week introduced legislation that would officially undo the 2009 decision for the 2021 budget year, which begins Oct. 1, 2020.

Her legislation would also formally reject the demand by the county’s Citizens Independent Transportation Trust board — made last August — to end the 2009 exemptions once the 2020 budget year begins this October. That’s a move the county says would cripple the transit system.

“It was going to cause us to shut down bus routes immediately,” Sosa said of the transportation board’s August vote. “I just want things to be done the right way.”

While the transportation board took its vote in August, it was kept off the commission’s agenda for months by the county attorney’s office, which concluded only Sosa could request the legislation needed to bring it forward.

The commission has a policy that reserves a legislative topic to the first commissioner who reserves it, and Sosa had already requested a resolution related to the 2009 change for the transportation-tax rules. It was an approach that idled the county board’s request for a dramatic change in transit policy, and Sosa’s decision to put her resolution on the agenda is now bringing the matter before the full board nine months later.

Sosa, a former chairwoman of the 13-member commission, said she was unaware of the procedural bottleneck. “I did not know my resolution was holding that back,” she said.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who backs the immediate end to the 2009 change, had requested legislation to have the commission quickly consider the transportation board’s vote. In a September memo to the county’s legal department, he called the holdup “an effort to ignore, delay or permanently frustrate” the transportation board’s efforts.

If Sosa’s legislation passes, it could trigger a more high-stakes battle. The transportation board would have the option of approving its August resolution again, which would take a two-thirds vote of the 13-seat county commission to override.

But a repeat vote to end the 2009 transportation-tax rules isn’t a given.

A leading critic of the 2009 change, lawyer Paul Schwiep, lost his board seat in November after county attorneys said he couldn’t serve while helping in legal action trying to overturn Miami-Dade approval of a highway extension.

“If we complain too loud about what the administration is doing, watch out,” Schwiep said in a recent interview. “You might lose your seat on the board.”

Gimenez met with the transportation board weeks after its vote, making the case for waiting until his administration’s budget plan to halt the subsidies anyway. His budget office shows property taxes replacing some of the transportation-tax subsidy in the fall of 2020, and none of the transportation tax going to operations by 2024.

“I don’t have a problem with deadlines,” Gimenez said at the Sept. 6 meeting.

At the time, Miami-Dade was bracing for a budget hit from a statewide referendum on expanded tax breaks for property owners. The ballot question ended up failing in an upset last November, and Gimenez told the tax board Miami-Dade could afford to cancel the 2009 waiver in 2019.

“If it does pass,” Gimenez said, “we can do what you want, which is by next year eliminate it.”

Gimenez’s budget office is circulating calculations showing the fight over the transportation-tax subsidy could be more narrow than the numbers first suggest.

While the administration’s 2019 budget describes a $95 million operating subsidy for transit from the transportation tax, only a tiny portion of that is linked to the 2009 rule change, according to the budget office’s analysis.

The summary prepared for an upcoming meeting claims about $85 million of current transit expenses stem from projects included in the original plan approved by voters in 2002.

That includes operations and maintenance for the 2 1/2 mile Orange Line extension of Metrorail to Miami International Airport, bus routes created after the referendum, the elimination of Metromover’s 25-cent fare, and free transit passes for residents over the age of 64.

If they aren’t contested, the numbers would mean only about $10 million extra is available for projects without the 2009 rules change. That’s less than 5 percent of the $276 million Miami-Dade expects to collect from the transportation tax this year.

The math wouldn’t matter if Rep. Bryan Avila and Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. succeed in passing a sweeping bill that would upend the transportation landscape in Miami-Dade.

The Republicans from the Hialeah area introduced matching legislation that would dissolve the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority toll board, shrink a county transportation board and, starting in 2022, ban spending the “half-penny” tax on any operations or maintenance expenses, including for the new transit projects that were allowed under the original 2022 rules.

“Why does it take 50 minutes to drive five miles,” Avila asked during a recent meeting with county commissioners. “I think we can all agree the intent [of the 2002 referendum] was to improve transportation. … Obviously, it has not come to fruition.”

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County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa wants to reject a Miami-Dade board’s plan to limit transit-tax spending as soon as Oct. 1, 2019.

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Gimenez and commissioners are fighting the bill and warn it would block the latest effort to expand county transit along six commuting corridors — an initiative known as the SMART Plan.

A $243 million rapid-transit bus line was approved last year for South Dade, and the county estimates it will need about $11 million a year from the transportation tax for new operation and maintenance expenses.

Gimenez said the dollars are essential as Miami-Dade competes for state and federal grants to cover more than half of the construction costs.

“If you don’t have the funds to maintain and operate the system … you’re not going to get the money,” Gimenez said. “If we don’t get the money, we’re not going to be able to do any of these projects.”