Miami Beach

Miami Beach rejects restaurant tax to fund homeless and domestic violence programs

Alfonso is a homeless man who lives on the streets of Miami Beach. The city rejected an expansion of a food and beverage tax that would have increased funding for homeless services.
Alfonso is a homeless man who lives on the streets of Miami Beach. The city rejected an expansion of a food and beverage tax that would have increased funding for homeless services. cjuste@miamiherald.com

An effort to expand a food and beverage tax that funds countywide homeless and domestic violence programs to Miami Beach, Surfside and Bal Harbour stalled on Wednesday night.

The Miami Beach City Commission rejected a resolution urging the Florida Legislature to expand a 1 percent tax tacked onto restaurant bills to include Miami Beach, which is currently exempt. Bal Harbour and Surfside, which are also exempt, had indicated that they wanted Miami Beach to go first before they consider similar resolutions.

The Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, which administers the funding from the 1 percent tax collected in the county’s other 32 municipalities, said it needs more money to provide the homeless with permanent housing. The Trust estimates that levying the tax in the three coastal cities would generate roughly $6.5 million a year to support the county’s most vulnerable residents. Eighty-five percent of the tax goes to the Homeless Trust and the other 15 percent pays for domestic violence programs.

“While I have revenue to continue to sustain what we are doing, if we are going to end homelessness we must have more resources,” said Ron Book, head of the Homeless Trust board.

On Wednesday, Book appealed to the Miami Beach City Commission to support expanding the tax to include Miami Beach. Commissioners also heard impassioned pleas from formerly homeless people who have benefited from the Homeless Trust’s services, including Anita Martin, who said she lived on the streets of Miami Beach for years, picking through hotel garbage for food, before getting help.

“I just feel the penny act, it would do a lot of people a lot of good,” Martin said.

Earnest Trotman, a chef who used to be homeless in Miami Beach, also spoke in favor of the tax.

“I pray that this tax comes through because there is another me out there somewhere just waiting for help,” he said.

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The Lotus House shelter for homeless women and children in Overtown was dedicated just under a year ago. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Business groups opposed tacking another tax onto restaurant bills, however. The county tax applies to restaurants that have a liquor license and whose receipts total at least $400,000 a year, with the exception of restaurants attached to hotels.

The 1 percent tax would amount to an extra $1 on a $100 restaurant tab, but that would boost taxes on restaurant bills to 10 percent —the highest food and beverage tax rate in the state — because Miami Beach consumers already pay a 2 percent city tax when they go out to eat. Miami Beach, Surfside and Bal Harbour were initially exempted from the countywide homeless tax when the Florida Legislature created it in 1993 because they already had restaurant taxes that went toward municipal services.

“While we are sympathetic to the needs of the homeless, we do not feel that it is fair and objective singling out one industry — our restaurants to pick up this cost,” Lynne M. Hernandez, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association’s South Florida regional director, said in a letter to commissioners. “This puts your local businesses/restaurants in jeopardy to remain competitive with restaurants on the mainland.”

Camillus House is unveiling a new veterans' village in Overtown that will house an emergency shelter for 40 veterans and include dozens of permanent apartments for those who graduate from the program.

Jerry Libbin, president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, echoed these concerns. He told commissioners that the chamber opposes placing the burden for funding homeless programs “on the backs of the restaurants alone” rather than using existing resort taxes or other funding sources to pay for homeless services.

Commissioners did not vote on the resolution Wednesday after the sponsor, Commissioner Ricky Arriola, couldn’t get a colleague to second his motion. Instead, commissioners voted to send the proposal to the finance committee for further discussion along with a consideration of other options to beef up homeless services.

Roughly a third of the Homeless Trust’s $61 million budget comes from restaurant taxes. Although the number of homeless people living on the streets in Miami-Dade has fallen from approximately 8,000 two decades ago to just over 1,000, according to the Trust’s annual count figures, the agency doesn’t have enough funding to provide permanent housing for all of the county’s homeless residents, Book said. That figure doesn’t include people in shelters, who number roughly 2,600, or the more than 8,000 in permanent housing that the Homeless Trust arranged. There also aren’t enough spaces in Miami-Dade shelters for victims of domestic violence, according to advocates.

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Jose Montesino, a homeless man in Miami Beach, naps at Lummus Park on South Beach. Miami Beach rejected the expansion of a tax that would have provided additional funding for homeless programs. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

The Trust employs a model known as “housing first,” which prioritizes providing permanent housing for the homeless before addressing other issues including substance abuse problems and unemployment. Book said this model has a high success rate, but it’s also expensive. It costs approximately $17,000 a year to house and provide support services to one person.

The Trust estimates that 15 percent of the homeless people living on the streets of Miami-Dade County are in Miami Beach, a figure based on the county’s annual point-in-time count. Miami Beach said that according to its figures, however, 95 percent of the city’s homeless population became homeless elsewhere before moving to the island.

Although Miami Beach runs its own homeless services program and doesn’t contribute to the Homeless Trust, the Trust contributes roughly $100,000 for the island’s homeless services through grant funding.

If the 1 percent tax was expanded to include Miami Beach, the city would receive funding from the Homeless Trust to operate its programs and could use the $1.8 million it currently spends on homeless services for other programs, Book said.

An effort to get the Miami Beach City Commission’s support for an expansion of the tax failed in 2017. But this time around, elected officials had an added incentive: A local donor pledged $10 million for homeless housing if the city agreed to support the 1 percent tax.

Former developer and philanthropist Martin Z. Margulies committed $10 million to the Lotus Endowment, which funds the Lotus House shelter, to purchase apartment buildings to provide long-term housing for Miami Beach’s homeless with the understanding that an expanded food and beverage tax would pay for operating costs and homeless services.

“The $10 million is just to get the ball rolling and get the housing for these people and there’s an ongoing commitment that the city has to pick up,” Margulies said. “They’ve got to do their part.”

Tourists strolling along Lincoln Road on Tuesday morning said they wouldn’t mind paying a little extra for a good cause.

“It’s all right for us,” said Vivian Garcia, who was visiting from Brazil with her husband. Garcia’s family has made many trips to Miami Beach over the years and she said that homelessness is a visible problem on the island. Brazil also struggles with homelessness, Garcia said, but doesn’t have a special tax to address the issue.

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