Education

Miami-Dade asks judge to dismiss teachers’ union lawsuit

The Miami-Dade County teacher’s union has sued the wrong person.

At least, that’s the argument in a response to the United Teachers of Dade lawsuit filed against county Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

“This unfortunate and frivolous lawsuit is political in nature and fails to recognize state and local laws,” Gimenez said in an emailed statement.

County lawyers responded to the lawsuit on Monday by asking a judge to dismiss the case — just as the school board is poised to discuss whether to join the teachers’ union in its legal action.

The suit has caught two of South Florida’s largest governments in an increasingly complicated and heated tangle over who to blame for property tax collection shortfalls — and how to fix it.

At issue is the Value Adjustment Board, or VAB — an otherwise little-noticed board that hears property tax appeals.

The problem: A backlog of appeals has caused tax collections to fall short of projections for multiple years. That creates unexpected budget shortfalls for local governments — including the county and the school board — well after the fiscal year has already started.

In governments as big as Miami-Dade and the school district, the shortfall has been huge: $44 million in Miami-Dade last year and a projected $40 at the school district this year. The district commissioned a recently released study that found a negative economic impact of $533 million since 2007 because of the shortfalls.

The United Teachers of Dade lawsuit claims the backlog in appeals has been caused by the mayor because he has underfunded the VAB. Without enough staff, the board can’t hear appeals quickly enough, according to the union. The union needs the tax collection issue to be fixed, in part, so teachers can get raises.

But Gimenez doesn’t set the VAB budget, according to the county’s motion to dismiss. Nor does the mayor have the power to manage the VAB process or bear the burden to fund education.

Those responsibilities, according to state statutes and case law laid out in the county’s motion, rest with the state Department of Revenue, the Legislature, county commissioners, the school board and the VAB itself.

“The mayor is simply not legally responsible for funding the VAB,” the motion says.

None of those entities are named in the lawsuit. So it should be thrown out for that, among other reasons, the county argues.

United Teachers of Dade President Fedrick Ingram said the union would move forward with the suit.

“We feel very confident about our lawsuit and we feel very confident about why we filed the lawsuit, and to whom we filed the lawsuit against,” he said.

In a legal opinion, outside counsel for the school board noted similar problems with the suit.

“There is a distinct possibility the lawsuit will not survive a motion to dismiss,” the opinion states.

Board member Raquel Regalado asked for the opinion as a first step to consider joining the union’s lawsuit. The school board is expected to vote whether to do so at its regular meeting on Wednesday.

“I just see no progression with any sort of resolution for this,” Regalado said at a recent committee meeting.

At that same committee meeting, board members suggested they might pursue their own suit over the issue. The board did not say who they’d sue, or why.

The school board meets 11 a.m. Wednesday at the district adminstration building, located at 1450 NE Second Ave. in Miami.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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