Disregarding the common good

Residents in Miami-Dade County are increasingly disillusioned with politics and politicians. That is why so many supported the ouster of County Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Commissioner Natacha Seijas for their blatant disregard for the common good of the community. Those who thought their departure would change the political culture in county government have been disappointed — inefficiency and lack of transparency continue.

A case in point is inefficiencies in Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Department. They give a glimpse as to why voters are frustrated with county government and distrust its leadership.

We all need clean water and we need a lot of it. Most of us take this for granted. Apparently, so do the stewards of our water at the county, who for decades have neglected to properly repair and replace this important infrastructure in a timely way. They have the funding, but the county has been siphoning $200 million derived from fees of the Water & Sewer Department and putting it in the general fund for other purposes.

This is wrong.

Miami-Dade Water & Sewer is a proprietary department similar to the airport and seaport, with the exception that the latter two have some federal oversight, which the Water & Sewer department does not. Officials say that the water fee in Miami-Dade is one of the lowest in the nation, which is true. But instead of using the funds for maintenance and growth, they were diverted to plug holes in a bloated county budget.

The result was predictable and disastrous. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Florida and the state’s Environmental Protection Agency found that the county’s aging infrastructure was responsible for many discharges of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay, the Miami River and the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in three consent decrees. The initial cost is $1.6 billion with an additional $12 billion soon to follow.

Albert Slap, who is representing the Biscayne Bay Water Keepers, an environmental group that has filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade for violating the Clean Water Act of 1972, says that taxpayers are not getting what they paid for from the county water and sewer fee.

“When people pay their water and sewer [fee], they are paying for a system that complies with the law. And when the county takes that money out of Water & Sewer and drives the system into violation, widespread massive violation of the clean-water laws of the state and the EPA, then it’s a bait and switch,” he told me on my special Issues Reports, which will air at noon Sunday on WPBT2.

This bait-and-switch game in budgeting is not new and it continues. It troubles Miami-Dade Commissioner Juan Carlos Zapata, who is vice chair of the commission’s Finance Committee.

Zapata says that the county does “a lot of cost shifting from one area to another, and what it does is take away from accountability and responsibility. You want to be able to measure the good work of one department, but what happens is that the good work of one department is used to subsidize one that is not so good.”

This does not fix the problem, it just makes it worse. Adding to this, Miami-Dade County officials find it difficult to stay within the budget. This presents two problems for Miami-Dade.

First, the county cannot continue to work on a system of dealing with emergencies; there is no long-term planning to prevent the emergencies. Second, the cost of county government is growing faster than the economy. Last year, Miami-Dade County collected 6.6-percent more in revenue than in the prior year, and still there is still a gaping hole in the county budget.

“That tells you there is a problem. We should be able, without having to increase the millage, to collect 5 percent and be able to cover all our costs,” responds Zapata.

In the past, county officials would have taken money from areas like Water & Sewer to fill in the gap. But the last consent decree signed by District Court Judge Federico Moreno prohibits the use of these funds taking funds for unrelated purposes.

Miami-Dade Water & Sewer is but one example of how for decades the county has acted irresponsibly.

County residents are not getting what they need from their government. Taxpayers need to know this. Voters need to ask questions and demand change.

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