Miami Beach

Miami Beach will not support food and beverage tax to fund Homeless Trust

People wait in line to eat at the dining hall at Camillus House on Feb. 10.
People wait in line to eat at the dining hall at Camillus House on Feb. 10.

Miami Beach commissioners will not be supporting a 1 percent food and beverage tax to fund homeless services after a discussion Wednesday that included urgent pleas from advocates and objections from business groups.

The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, facing a budget crunch, wants to use the estimated $7 million that would be generated by the 1 percent tax to pay for housing more homeless individuals. Chairman Ron Book made his pitch Wednesday at City Hall, asking commissioners to pass a resolution urging the state to expand an existing 1 percent tax to Miami Beach. The tax exists countywide except in Miami Beach, Bal Harbour and Surfside.

The increase would push restaurant sales-tax bills in Miami Beach from 9 percent to 10 percent. The state levies the tax, so Book was prepared to push a bill in Tallahassee, but he wanted support from the commission. But a majority of commissioners decided they would instead try to find more funding during the summer budget season.

After more than an hour of public comments from many homeless advocates and a few representatives from local businesses, only Commissioner Ricky Arriola favored the expanded tax.

“On a $100 tab for dinner, we’re talking about $1,” he said.

The three seaside cities have been exempt from a countywide homeless tax since it was created in 1993 because each of them already has a restaurant tax that helps pay for municipal services. Book proposed expanding the Trust’s tax revenue base last summer after the federal government withheld about $6 million in funds.

Chefs from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival will cook 3,500 meals for homeless people at Miami Rescue Mission.

“We’re not asking the city to carry a higher burden than other cities,” said Olga Golik, director of housing and advocacy for Citrus Health Network. “Just an equal burden.”

Business representatives countered by stating that the additional 1 percent would create the highest food and beverage tax in the state.

Disappointed with the lack of support Wednesday, Book said a budget allocation will help but that it’s subject to change each year. The tax is a more reliable long-term solution because it is more difficult to reverse.

“You want to put other resort tax dollars on the table? Want me to bring you a plan? We’ll do that,” he said. “Do I believe that’s a long-term solution? I don’t.”

Book later told the Miami Herald that he looked forward to working with the commission to increase the city’s annual contribution, which is currently more than $1 million.

“We are hopeful they will commit meaningful dollars,” he said, adding that homelessness is a countywide issue that includes people from the Beach who receive services.

Businesses spoke out against the tax, citing a difficult year that included losses in the wake of a Zika outbreak. Jerry Libbin, CEO of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, argued that the tax would hurt sales, with increasing competition from restaurants on the mainland.

“It may sound like it’s not a lot, but it puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” he said.

Advocates pleaded for support while advocating for the Homeless Trust’s philosophy on reducing homelessness, which prioritizes housing as the first step toward taking someone off the street.

Pauline Clarke-Trotman, the housing director for Better Way of Miami, told commissioners she benefited from that approach herself. After being provided housing and working her way to her position, she now works to help others do the same.

“Lives are changed, and people whose lives are changed are able to help many other live,” she said.

This year, the Trust has a $61 million budget, which is largely funded by $24.5 million in restaurant taxes and $28.6 million in federal grants. With cuts in federal funding, Book said the Trust cannot continue to dip into reserves.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech