Miami-Dade school board considers suit to recover $40 million in tax shortfalls

Miami-Dade County School Board Commissioner Raquel Regalado.
Miami-Dade County School Board Commissioner Raquel Regalado. EL NUEVO HERALD FILE

The Miami-Dade County School Board is considering legal action to recover tens of millions of dollars in property tax collection shortfalls in an increasingly heated tangle involving South Florida’s two largest governments.

The board also backed off from an ambitious plan to host events to sign up people for the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

The decisions were made at Wednesday’s regular board meeting.

Board members voted unanimously to “seek legal action as appropriate,” and pursue changes in state law to help fix the tax collection issue, which amounts to about $40 million in lost revenues to the school district. School officials said the money would be spent in the classroom and on teacher salaries.

Board member Raquel Regalado proposed the action.

“This is not about fault or blame. This is about solving a problem," she said.

The board stopped short of joining a recent lawsuit filed by the Miami-Dade teachers union against county Mayor Carlos Gimenez. A legal opinion provided to the board noted potential issues with United Teachers of Dade’s lawsuit. In a motion to dismiss the suit, county lawyers contend the union has sued the wrong person, saying the mayor has no control over the tax collection issue. The county cites Florida laws that say the Florida Department of Revenue has jurisdiction over this issue, as well as the county commission, the school board and the state Legislature.

The mayor’s communications director Michael Hernández spoke at Wednesday’s meeting.

“There are some who are trying to make this an intergovernmental battle. It is not,” he said. “We’re your partners.”

The problem centers on the Value Adjustment Board, which hears property tax appeals. A backlog of appeals means local governments receive less funding than predicted -- but the governments don’t find out until well after their budget have already been set. In entities as big as Miami-Dade and the school board, the shortfalls have totaled about $44 million in Miami-Dade last year, and $40 million at the district this year.

United Teacher of Dade president Fedrick Ingram said the union is sticking with its suit against Gimenez. He said the union would also consider joining the district should the district move forward with a lawsuit.

“We’re trying to solve this problem,” he said.

In other business, the board backed down from an ambitious proposal to help parents sign up for health insurance under the politically touchy Affordable Care Act.

Instead, the school district will simply review the legality, privacy issues and appropriateness of informing parents about “all insurance options” available to them. The significantly scaled-back proposal passed unanimously at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

Board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall had recommended partnering with the non-profit Enroll America to host sign-up events featuring federally certified enrollment experts. The proposal got little attention at a committee meeting when board members agreed to pass it along to the regular meeting agenda.

By the time of the regular board meeting, however, Bendross-Mindingall’s proposal had been changed to say the district would only “gather and disseminate” information about enrollment events and options under the Affordable Care Act. It made no mention of the district hosting any events or partnering with any groups to do so.

But in a lengthy discussion reflecting the political nature of the healthcare law, board members brought up, among other issues, concerns about privacy since sensitive information is required to sign up for insurance.

Pamela Roshell, regional director for the U.S Department of Health and Human Services for an area that covers Florida and seven other states, responded to those concerns in an interview with the Miami Herald. She noted that navigators, people who are certified to help others sign up for insurance, “are trained to follow provisions to protect personally identifiable information.”

The district will have to move quickly in its review; the deadline to sign up for insurance under the health care law is Feb. 15.

In the meantime, Bendross-Mindingall promised to do whatever is necessary to inform people about how to sign up for insurance. Her district includes a large African-American population, and insurance enrollment among minorities lags. According to an Enroll America representative, there are 67,000 uninsured kids in Miami-Dade.

“I will be knocking on doors. I will be doing whatever I can,” Bendross-Mindingall said. “We have to do what is absolutely necessary for those people who might not have access to technology.”

In another decision, the board gave final approval to new policies to ensure minority-owned businesses get a fair share of district contracts , pending an audit of a district study on the matter.

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