Do you know where your toll money goes?
Hialeah Gardens hasn’t had trouble collecting fees from property owners inside a 2011 improvement district that imposes fees to pay for roads, sewage systems and other infrastructure needed to allow development in the area. Then the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority moved to town.
The independent toll agency last year purchased about eight acres within city limits from a private owner as part of a larger plan to link the Gratigny Parkway with the nearby Florida Turnpike. The northern end of Hialeah Gardens sits between the two highways.
MDX’s new property sits within the city’s Northwest Improvement District, and earlier this year MDX let Hialeah Gardens know it didn’t have to pay the $21,000 city assessment attached to the tax bill it received for the land.
“Properties acquired by MDX are public lands and therefore not, as a matter of law, subject to special assessments imposed by the city,” MDX lawyer Mitchell Burnstein wrote in a February letter to Hialeah Gardens. Hialeah Gardens fired back a response calling the toll agency’s argument “spurious” and “markedly unfair.”
The 52 properties in the district formed in 2011 were each assessed somewhere in the range of $50,000 to $700,000 for about $10 million in road and infrastructure work. Hialeah Gardens agreed to an installment plan that would stretch the payments out for 15 years. The eight-acre vacant lot MDX purchased last year was assessed about $315,000 for its share of the improvements, according to figures provided by a city lawyer, and a yearly payment of about $21,000.
Frost Walker, a lawyer representing Hialeah Gardens, said that as a government entity, MDX may be exempt from future city assessments on the property. But Walker argued that the toll agency shouldn’t be able to undo a past assessment that was owed on the land when MDX purchased it.
The existing payment system is based on all properties paying. The revenue covers payments on a loan Regions Bank made to cover part of the roadwork and other improvements. While the loss of $21,000 a year looks minor, Walker said MDX’s plan to purchase more land for the Gratigny expansion would ruin Hialeah Gardens if an increasingly larger slice of the assessment revenue vanished.
“The city would be insolvent,” Walker wrote Burnstein on Feb. 23. “Regions Bank would not be happy.” The latest financial statement from Hialeah Gardens lists a $4.6 million deficit in the city’s roads fund, a shortfall being paid off by assessment revenue.
Hialeah Gardens last week held a public meeting with MDX, a required step for the city if it wants to sue the toll board to collect the disputed assessment dollars. On Tuesday night, Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset De La Cruz said in an interview he was encouraged by a recent meeting with MDX officials on a possible settlement. “I think we’ll be able to work something out,” he said.
The Gratigny is one of five toll expressways run by the MDX, which is governed by a board of county and state appointees. Carlos Gimenez, Miami-Dade’s mayor, serves as chairman of the board and holds one of the seats filled by the County Commission.
For MDX, a yearly assessment of $21,000 represents about 45 minutes of toll revenue for an agency that generates roughly $240 million a year. Most of that money is tied up in debt payments related to improvements and expansions on the five expressways it manages, which require no tax dollars for maintenance.
In his February letter, Walker said Hialeah Gardens was ready to take “whatever action is necessary” to collect the assessments from MDX.
“We have borrowed a lot of money secured by that assessment revenue. ... One of the dangers is they plan to buy more property there,” Walker said this week. “It’s a significant issue.”