Reject Broward sales tax, plan is a boondoggle | Editorial
Sun Sentinel Editorial Board recommends Broward voters reject the two half-penny sales taxes on the November ballot. However, it recommends Palm Beach County voters approve the sales tax push there. Here’s why.
Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
OCTOBER 8, 2016, 4:03 PM
Something must be done to address traffic congestion in Broward County, but the plan facing voters in November won’t come close.
The proposal to raise the sales tax — half a penny for transportation, half a penny for infrastructure — was thrown together in the spring to prevent three even-worse tax proposals from reaching the ballot. Rather than ask voters to choose between warring plans, city and county leaders agreed to compromise on a pitch for a full penny, then split the proceeds.
So when you ask campaign leaders why voters on Nov. 8 should raise the sales tax from six to seven cents, the first thing they say is that after squabbling for years over money, local governments are finally getting along.
That hardly seems like a compelling reason to raise taxes. So if that doesn’t sway you, neither will what comes next.
After digging into the numbers and paper-thin plans, here’s how we see the pitch: Give us the money. Trust us. We’ll make Broward great. It’s now or never. Believe us.
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board strongly urges voters to vote “NO” on these two ill-considered money grabs.
But wait, proponents argue. Raising $15 billion over 30 years would fund much-needed transportation improvements and infrastructure projects.
Vague routes for light rail
Let’s start with transportation.
It’s true that when you ask people what frustrates them most about living in Broward, they talk about the traffic. And with another 600,000 people expected to move here by 2030, it’s going to get worse. For let’s be honest: when it comes to transportation, growth does not pay for itself.
The biggest-ticket item in the half-penny transportation tax plan is a proposed extension of downtown Fort Lauderdale’s Wave streetcar — a 2.8-mile loop that while almost fully funded, has yet to break ground after more than 12 years. Planners say the line will have a negligible effect on downtown traffic and could make some intersections worse. It’s mostly seen as a vehicle to foster growth and development.
The Wave’s first proposed extension would have two legs — from downtown to the airport, and from downtown to the convention center and seaport. Well, maybe not the seaport because of problems with security and costs. In fact, loads of details need to be worked out before this plan is fully baked, including the routes. Yet construction is promised to begin by 2022.
The second proposed extension would run east-west to the educational complex in Davie, with a northern route up to the BB&T Center and Sawgrass Mills. But it’s a stretch to call this phase a plan. No one can really say where the train would go, where the stations would be or how many people would ride it.
The 14-mile line could run along Griffin Road. Or along Broward Boulevard. Or along Sunrise Boulevard. Or along Oakland Park Boulevard. There’s no guarantee on the route, we were told by the campaign’s leaders, Weston Mayor Dan Stermer and Broward County Commissioner Lois Wexler.
“But we can guarantee you it’s going to happen somewhere that traverses the county east-west,” Stermer said. “Which is the best place for it? Studies and density and time will tell. But we’re talking about something that’s at least 20 years out.”
Twenty years out? For this, we should pony up today? Shouldn’t we get to see a plan first?
Not surprisingly, the proposed costs are squishy, too. We’re asked to believe this plan will cost $68 million per mile, no matter the route. Yeah, right. Google any rail project and you’ll see “over budget and behind schedule.” McKinsey and Company say 45 percent of rail projects go over budget.
The preferred route seems to be Griffin Road because of concerns about neighborhood pushback and land-acquisition costs along the boulevards. But ask yourself this: If light rail runs along Griffin Road, would you ride it?
Local leaders are right that people want something done about traffic congestion, but this slap-dash pitch for light-rail won’t make a difference.
The bus challenge
The county also wants to beef up its bus fleet, with a promise that within 10 years, no one would wait more than 15 minutes for a ride. Today, it takes 30 minutes or more on many routes.
In the spring, the county proposed spending half its early-years tax money on a lot more buses, more express routes and more bus shelters. But the idea excited no one. Neither did a suggestion that if a tax passes, the county could shift some of today’s transportation dollars to other areas, like housing for the homeless. Talk about a shell game.
While not as sexy as light rail, a robust bus system could actually do a lot more to move people around Broward, and not just people of lesser means.
But to lure people out of their cars, Broward’s got to offer them a better alternative. And today’s buses have a reputation for being dirty, delayed and driven by dangerous drivers.
To make buses really work — and to be clear, a metropolitan area like ours really needs to make buses work — the county first must negotiate a better contract with its drivers, one that demands safe driving records. Cleanliness and accoutrements are needed, too.
For commuters, we’ve got to make riding a bus better than driving a car. And that means creating bus-only lanes on major boulevards, something today’s plan doesn’t envision.
People change behavior only when the price of not changing is too great. And if stalled motorists see buses zipping by in dedicated lanes, perhaps they would get onboard public transportation.
But squeezing lanes out of already-congested roads is a hard sell, which is why it’s only discussed in hush-hush tones. Yet from Pompano Beach to Hollywood, the Florida Department of Transportation already is eliminating lanes to make roads safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.
These so-called “road diets” are sure to frustrate motorists, but are supported by many of the same local leaders who want to raise the sales tax to “fix” transportation.
If reducing car lanes is the new direction for crowded thoroughfares, rapid bus lanes deserve their place in the mix.
Synchronized street lights
For years, the county has promised to better synchronize traffic lights. It’s spent millions to move from analog to digital to fiberoptic. Now it says spending millions more on fiberoptics will keep motorists from seeing red.
We recognize that moving traffic on saturated roads is a complicated proposition and requires the redesign of certain intersections, which costs money. But given the county’s broken promises about today’s green-light fiberoptic system — and our bigger concerns about this transportation plan — we can’t encourage people to raise taxes for 30 years on the hope and prayer of synchronized lights.
The transportation plan has things to like. More sidewalks and bike paths are sorely needed.
But keeping first things first, people want something done about traffic congestion. And this “trust us” plan would barely make a dent.
The infrastructure slush fund
South Florida faces a real threat from sea-level rise. You see the flooding. You get the boil-water notices. But it’s going to be enormously expensive to raise roads, replace aging water and sewer lines, and buy pumps to get rid of standing water.
Yet surprisingly, Broward cities barely mention such projects in their 30-year pitch for a half-penny infrastructure sales tax.
Indeed, only 9 percent of the money would go for water, sewer and stormwater projects. And only 13 percent would go for roads and bridges.
And given that this push started with a cry to fix transportation, it’s stunning how little Broward’s 31 cities plan to spend on fixing city streets — the majority of the region’s roadways. Plus it’s next to impossible to find plans for community shuttles, for which they’re responsible in the negotiated split.
A whole lot more money — 17 percent — would be spent on government buildings. Another 10 percent would fund new city vehicles, police cars and fire trucks. The biggest chunk — 27 percent — would go to parks.
But citizens already pay ever-increasing property taxes and fees for parks and public safety.
Do we really want to raise the sales tax for 30 years so that Fort Lauderdale can build a new police headquarters and Weston can renovate four fire stations, among other things?
Granted, the recession hit cities hard. That’s why 16 cities already got voters to approve bonds — backed by property taxes. Properly done, these bonds allow citizens to evaluate close-to-home projects and how they’re managed.
In the cities that have bonds, we’d argue that raising the sales tax amounts to double-dipping. (Those cities are Cooper City, Coral Springs, Dania Beach, Davie, Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Lauderdale Lakes, Lauderhill, Lighthouse Point, Margate, Pembroke Pines, Sunrise, Tamarac and Wilton Manors. Also, Plantation is asking voters to approve a bond on the November ballot.)
We’d also note that Palm Beach County is now asking for a penny sales tax increase, and we are encouraging our readers there to support the plan. In Palm Beach County, half the money would go to fix schools; 30 percent would help the county fix roads, bridges and parks; and 20 percent would help cities with infrastructure needs. But that effort, three years in the making, has been more thoroughly vetted. Plus, the tax would last only 10 years and expire early if it reaches its $2.7 billion cap.
Broward cities, by contrast, compiled their 30-year wish lists over a couple of months. And some acknowledge they don’t even know how they’d spend the money in later years.
Mayor Stermer of Weston, who’s emerged as the head cheerleader for the tax, insists the details are all on the website, www.apennyatwork.com.
We’ve looked at the website. We’ve also met with dozens of candidates running for office in 19 Broward cities. And we’ve determined that the cities’ lists are mostly vague and un-vetted. In some cases, they represent cost-shifting.
In Oakland Park, a commission candidate who has helped oversee the city’s capital projects said he didn’t even recognize the city’s list of proposed projects on the website.
In Wilton Manors, the mayor said water and sewer projects would be a priority, but the website doesn’t show the city addressing water and sewer until 2027 — and then only vaguely. Plus, the city park and fire station on the early-years list already are getting funding from other sources.
In Hollywood, where flooding is bad and getting worse, the website shows $30 million would be spent over 30 years on drainage, swales and septic-to-sewer conversion. But it’s hard to trust that number. For the city also says it’s getting a lot more money than it’s getting — $1.8 billion over 30 years. Records show it would get about $500 million over the life of the tax.
In Fort Lauderdale, where flooding and water-main breaks occur far too often, the city would receive an average of $19.6 million a year for infrastructure. But the city already is shifting $20 million a year from its water-and-sewer fund to pay for other things. Would more money allow more shell games? There’s no guarantees here, folks.
While some cities offer more detail than others, we’ve yet to hear of a single city commission that has approved one of these spending plans. Rather, it appears city managers took approved five-year capital lists and dreamed up ways to spend a windfall in years on out.
Is this a sound case for raising taxes?
Broward’s tax plan for infrastructure is nothing more than a slush fund in the making.
It’s now or never
A lot of Broward power brokers hope citizens agree to raise the sales tax. They note that tourists would pay 30 percent of it. And it wouldn’t apply to purchases over $5,000. Neither do sales taxes apply to groceries, gas or health care.
People whom we like and respect worry that without a dedicated local funding source, Broward won’t be able to get needed federal funds for transportation.
Mostly, they worry that if this effort fails, nothing will ever happen. And they worry the Florida Legislature will soon make it harder for communities to pass local tax or bond referendums.
Last year the Florida House attempted to raise the threshold — to 60 percent — for such referendums. But Florida Senate leaders tell us they have no such desire.
It’s unfortunate this rush to the ballot happened because our friends are right. If this tax scheme fails — as it should — they will have left an impression that will be hard to overcome.
We place most of the blame on city leaders, who in the spring demanded a bigger slice of the penny tax being pushed by the county for transportation projects. Once they discovered they could push a separate infrastructure tax, all bets were off.
But we also blame county leaders for failing to propose a well-developed plan. Given everyone’s concern about transportation, we had encouraged them to vet a plan for 2018 that really made sense. But headstrong people jumped the gun and today’s compromise emerged.
After watching Broward’s county and city governments fight for years about money, it’s good to see them finally getting along.
But today’s good will is insufficient reason to raise the sales tax for 30 years.
The way things are written, if one of these half-penny sales tax referendums die, they both die.
We encourage you to kill them both.
Copyright © 2016, Sun Sentinel