Carvalho: Miami-Dade Schools tax collections could fall $60 million short — again

Tax collections for Miami-Dade County Public Schools could fall $60 million short for the second consecutive year, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Wednesday.

To brace for the shortfall, the $4 billion school district is putting aside spare dollars and closely watching monthly collections. For instance, an item that saves $18 million by reducing spending and transferring costs is included on next week’s School Board agenda.

The district is also lobbying the Florida Legislature, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (Miami-Dade’s former property appraiser), and the county’s Value Adjustment Board to try to fix the problem, which is mostly unique to South Florida.

In the meantime, Carvalho said the district is being short-changed.

“It could easily be said that dollars that belong to education in Miami-Dade are being taken from the pockets of our teachers and the desks of our kids,” he told School Board members during a committee meeting.

Miami-Dade’s problem with collections is due to a confluence of factors.

State law requires municipalities, which are heavily funded by property taxes, to budget projected tax collections at 95 percent of what the property appraiser says they’re owed. For school districts, the baseline is a little higher at 96 percent.

But tax rolls have been volatile since the real estate bubble popped. In Miami-Dade, collections fell to around 92 percent last year according to district officials. The problem has been exacerbated by a backlog of property-tax appeals and a recent switch by the Miami-Dade Tax Collector’s office to an electronic system that is now pushing through a bottleneck of tax refunds at a rapid pace.

Other Miami-Dade government agencies are dealing with the issue. The county recently estimated shortfalls around $24 million. Going into this fiscal year, Hialeah’s budget guru said the city was expecting collections at 90 percent of what was projected.

Still, for the school district, which unlike municipalities runs on a fiscal year from July to June, an extra problem exists in that tax collections aren’t completed until after the year’s books are closed. That can leave the district scrambling. This year, Carvalho said he has heard the collections shortfall could be between $40 million and $60 million.

Carvalho said the district will continue to push state lawmakers to allow school districts more budget leeway. School-district officials are also looking to address problems they say can be solved through the county’s Value Adjustment Board.

The board hears appeals cases, which Carvalho said fostered a cottage industry for abusive property-appeals agencies.

“The appeals process should be a process whereby residents voluntarily try to find out whether they’re being treated fairly or not,” said Board Member Carlos Curbelo, who sits on the Value Adjustment Board. “It should not be an industry.”