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Miami Herald - December 13, 2001
A NEW TRANSIT TAX VOTE PUSHED, GRAND JURY REPORT CRITICAL OF COUNTY
by Charles Rabin and Jay Weaver
A Miami-Dade grand jury examining the county's clogged commuting system recommended
that voters be given another shot at passing a transportation tax to pay for expanded
Metrorail lines and more public transportation.
In a critical report issued Wednesday, the jurors painted a bleak future for commuters:
Where to work, where to live, where to eat will be based upon traffic. Emergency
vehicles will be unable to respond on a timely basis.
As a result, the jurors called for a half-penny transportation tax increase before
``Without solutions in place, the future congestion our community faces will have
dire consequences upon our quality of life,'' the report noted.
The 30-page report -- and its nonbinding recommendations -- comes at a time when
Miami-Dade County has been rated the third-worst place to commute in the United
Jurors said the county must find a dedicated funding source for transportation needs
within a year, or risk losing $9 billion in matching federal funds by 2003. They
said too many entities control too many roadways in Miami-Dade and that needs to
The jurors called for Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, county commissioners, local
state legislators, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and Miami-Dade County
Expressway Authority to form an independent panel to oversee all roadway projects
in the county.
Jurors also said a transportation ``czar'' should be appointed to watchdog the ``very
public and truly enforceable'' use of taxpayer dollars.
The grand jury, formed six months ago, looked at the much-ballyhooed-but-failed
``Transit, Not Tolls'' penny tax of 1999. That plan, to raise billions of dollars
to build highways and improve mass transit, would also have funneled more than $100
million for cultural projects, college scholarships and child-care -- a fact not
lost on grand jurors.
After it failed, the expressway authority raised tolls at a few Miami-Dade expressways.
``All of us clearly remember the animated public debate over whether it was a tax
necessary to fund future transportation or just another boondoggle for local government
to mismanage,'' the jurors wrote.
Citing the doomed 1999 one-cent sales tax, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández
Rundle agreed with the jurors, saying the public's mistrust killed any hopes politicians
had of getting that bond issue passed.
``They thought the [penny-sales tax campaign had a confusing message to it, and
that in the future that has to be eliminated and avoided at all cost,'' Fernández
The jurors also addressed legal concerns about the way money was raised during the
1999 campaign. Last August, Treasure Coast state prosecutors found wrongdoing in
the fundraising effort, but decided not to press charges because nobody intended
to break the law.
None of the fundraisers were charged for the way donations were funneled to the
``Transit, Not Tolls'' campaign. Prosecutors determined no laws were broken when
donations were solicited from local arts groups and funneled through the fundraising
Florida International University Foundation to the transit campaign. The foundation
is the nonprofit fundraising arm of the university.
Fernández Rundle removed herself from the criminal portion of the case, declaring
she had a conflict of interest because of a professional relationship with FIU President
In fact, two of the grand jurors were well-versed in the Transit, Not Tolls campaign.
Adolfo Henriques, a member of the FIU trustees, was the treasurer of the grand jury.
The trustees oversaw the FIU Foundation, a nonprofit group that helped the political
action committee [PAC raise $299,000 for the failed 1999 tax.
Mercedes Ferré, Maurice Ferré's wife, also sat on the jury. Ferré,
who lost a bid for Miami mayor in November, was chairman of the penny sales tax
PAC. Part of his platform before losing to Miami Mayor Manny Diaz last month was
creating a light rail system that would link Coral Gables to downtown Brickell.
Neither Maurice Ferré nor Rundle said they found any conflict of interest
with Mercedes Ferré serving.
Henriques, out of town Wednesday, could not be reached. Fernández Rundle
defended his presence, saying grand jurors are randomly picked from driver's license
Still, all the grand jurors said politics and the county's ongoing corruption problem
killed the transit campaign.
``There is no question that a healthy mistrust of government, whether based upon
recent events of mismanagement and corruption or based upon a history of promises
broken was at the root of our community's failure to approve this proposal,'' said
The jurors recommended the county create a panel to oversee spending that would
be immune to meddling by the mayor, the county commission and Metropolitan Planning
Organization (MPO), which currently has power over transportation issues and caught
the brunt of the jurors's critique. Jurors called the MPO a ``political organization
MPO member and Miami Commissioner Arthur E. Teele Jr., who had not yet seen the
report, acknowledged the MPO is sometimes bogged down by politics.
``All 13 county commissioners are on the MPO,'' said Teele, who testified before
the grand jury and welcomed its findings. ``Those are certainly recommendations
that I endorse and embrace.''
Penelas could not be reached for comment.
Jurors also addressed the importance of the concept that mass transit must take
people to places they need to go -- like Miami International Airport, as originally
promised to taxpayers years ago when Metrorail was built.
Jurors urged politicians to find a way to gain the public's trust, and suggested
a transparent campaign where voters would know exactly what benefits they would
get for their money. They called for elected officials to support a new transportation
``Having been burned at the polls once, the political courage is lacking to try
to convince our community of this need again. Even worse, this funding was intended
to provide the local match for the federal funds needed to provide an improved mass
transit system for our community,'' the report reads.
``This fact alone highlights the need for our elected officials and our community
leaders to once more bring a plan for dedicated funding back to our community for