Will next Miami-Dade mayor ask voters to fund climate projects? One candidate says yes

Laveta Brigham

Alex Penelas said Wednesday he would ask voters to approve major projects to protect Miami-Dade from the effects of climate change if he’s elected mayor in 2020, saying the county needs the kind of big spending provided by borrowing against property taxes. “If we’re going to be bold on these […]

Alex Penelas said Wednesday he would ask voters to approve major projects to protect Miami-Dade from the effects of climate change if he’s elected mayor in 2020, saying the county needs the kind of big spending provided by borrowing against property taxes.

“If we’re going to be bold on these issues, we’ve got to recognize that this is going to cost in the multiples of billions of dollars,” the former county mayor running for the office again said during a candidate forum produced by the Miami Climate Alliance. “We keep kicking these issues down the road.”

Known as bond programs, they can raise billions of dollars from Wall Street for large projects. The debt is paid off by a special property tax dedicated to bond projects.

Borrowing against property taxes must be approved by voters, as happened in 2013 to raise $830 million for the county-owned Jackson hospital system and in 2012 to raise more than $1 billion for public schools.

The debt tax for county government is already generating more than $100 million a year to make bond payments for Jackson, parks, museums, sewer facilities and government buildings as part of a program voters approved in 2004 at the end of Penelas’ second term as mayor.

The other mayoral candidates in the forum, Miami-Dade commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Xavier Suarez, said they didn’t support the Penelas call for a climate-change bond program. Suarez said he wouldn’t consider it.

“Absolutely not,” he told John Morales, the NBC6 meteorologist who served as one of the online event’s moderators. “We’re paying gas taxes, we’re paying property taxes … People are tired of paying taxes.”

Levine Cava, who has made her environmental agenda a central part of her campaign, said it’s too early to say whether Miami-Dade needs the infusion of new revenue that a bond vote would bring.

“I don’t think it’s necessary at this point,” she said. Now in her second term on the commission, Levine Cava said as mayor she would rework Miami-Dade’s existing budget for major projects to shift bond dollars to fight the effects of climate change. “We need to make some hard choices. We’ll see how far those dollars can go.”

All property owners already pay the county’s debt tax, currently set at $47 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value. It can increase and decrease each year to match the payments owed bond holders who loaned the money for the voter-approved projects.

New bond programs mean new requirements for tax dollars. But the tax rate can remain the same if payments for the new debt can take the place of payments for debt that’s either retired or refinanced to be paid off in later years.

The $2.9 billion Building Better Communities program voters approved in 2004 was used to build the Pérez Art Museum and Frost Science Museum in Miami, expand county park facilities, build the Miami-Dade police headquarters, dig a tunnel to PortMiami and back hundreds of other projects.

The county has borrowed about $2 billion of what voters authorized, and paid back about $330 million of that debt, according to Miami-Dade’s latest report to bondholders. Yearly debt payments continue to increase through 2033, according to forecasts in the report, and then begin decreasing until the debt is paid off 25 years from now.

Penelas said he thought the county could structure new bond payments to keep the current debt-tax rate flat or close to flat. “I think there’s a fiscally responsible way of doing it that’s revenue neutral to the public as we retire the 2004 bond issue,” he said. “I think there’s a way of issuing new debt that will create very little, if any, burden on taxpayers.”

The third commissioner running for mayor, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, did not participate in the Climate Alliance event, citing a scheduling conflict. Running as the “conservative candidate” in the non-partisan race to succeed a term-limited Carlos Gimenez, Bovo cast the Penelas pledge as a way to reward supporters with new big-ticket infrastructure projects.

“Typical Penelas,” he said in a statement. “Bold vision equals raising taxes and his friends going to the bank.”

This article was updated to correct how much Alex Penelas said a major infrastructure plan would cost Miami-Dade. He said it would cost “multiples of billions of dollars.”

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