"When all think alike, no one is thinking very much." ~ Walter Lippmann
Exclusive to STR
We are all aware of the way our federal and state governments blow our tax dollars on $800 hammers and congressional perks and pay raises, but few of us rarely pay close attention to our county and municipal government budgets. Local governments armed with taxing authority of their own are just as inept and corrupt as their larger federal and state counterparts. County and municipal taxing authority literally hit closer to home since most of their revenues are derived from property taxes.
With this in mind, I decided to attend my county ( Miami-Dade Florida ) budget hearing in September. Prior to the meeting in late July, the local newspaper (The Miami Herald) published a series of articles titled House of Lies in which they pointed to a number of instances of corruption and inefficiency in the county's affordable housing program. Among the highlights (or lowlights) of the article was one developer who had been paid over $3 million by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency and had not built one affordable housing unit, though he did acquire a $700,000 home in a ritzy area of town made 'affordable' to him by a check in the same amount from the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. The "developer" (who to date has managed to develop only a bad reputation) was also in the process of building himself an 11,000 square foot mansion in another upscale area compliments of the money he was able to easily extract from the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. But if that wasn't sobering enough, over $22 million had been doled out by the agency and not one square foot of 'affordable' housing had been built. Many groups 'involved' in affordable housing issues picked up on the news and appeared in force at the budget hearing.
Arriving at the county government building, an intimidating 29 story concrete structure, I noticed that tents had been set up outside; the newly formed Housing Coalition members had stayed in them for two days leading up to the meeting to prove a point (that camping in urban areas is lucrative?). A few folks were milling about but the bulk of the 'campers' were inside the county commission chambers (of economic horrors). Stepping into the cavernous lobby, I noticed some prominent signs pinned to temporary dividers that in large red letters read 'Homeless? Or About To Be.' Just in front of the divider was a long table manned by about 15 county employees (probably collecting overtime) who were very busy chit chatting, drinking coffee and attending to certain aspects of personal hygiene, but apparently there were no homeless or soon to be homeless folks eager to talk to the 'busy' county staffers.
Finally I was able to enter the commission chambers (but not before passing through a gauntlet of suited lobbyists, reporters and county staffers congregated in the hallway outside), and was able to sit in the 500 seat auditorium. I was surprised because this being a county of over two million people, with a proposed budget and tax increase of 14 percent, I thought it would be standing room only filled to the brim by a multitude of rabid taxpayers. Instead I was surrounded by a motley crew of housing protesters, their ring leaders, attorneys, union reps, lobbyists and 'community activists.' The hundred or so members of the newly formed housing coalition were readily identifiable by an impromptu sign hanging on them that read '200 Million $$$$$' in front and in back of their shirts, which reminded me of a grade school prank where you would hang a sign saying 'Kick Me!' on the back of an unsuspecting classmate, and believe me, I was tempted.
The housing coalition ringleaders stepped up to the podium and demanded $200 million in order to 'fix' the county's 'affordable' housing problem, or crisis as it was referred to. As I listened to the different orators, something hit me like a ton of imaginary bricks (much like the ones used by the housing agency's developers). If the number of homeless people they claimed was true, I would've had to run over at least a dozen of them just to get to the meeting. They weren't there to actually get a piece of the housing pie; they were mad because they had missed out on the previous gravy train ($22 million) and wanted one of their own. Then things really got interesting.
The commissioners weighed in on the conversation. Commissioner Carlos Gimenes matter-of-factly mentioned that the county had spent $412 million during the current fiscal year and had budgeted for $477 million in the existing budget. (How many imaginary bricks can that buy?) Commissioner Dorrin Role, who in the past has had problems balancing checkbooks, inquired about 'floating' a bond (not that he intends to pay it back). Commissioner Edmonson suggested the folks go bother the state or federal government (they have more money), and Commissioner Bruno Barriero said it was really not a budgetary crisis (since imaginary bricks are cheap, you know) but rather a 'programmatic' problem. Again I was struck by imaginary building material, but this time it was a ton of lead. These commissioners had recently cried poverty and had asked the voters for a raise, which was fortunately denied (maybe they can get an imaginary one, like the bricks), yet I was being blinded by shiny cuff links, fine jewelry, pinky rings and solid gold watches. This crew made the Sopranos look like street corner bums.
After discussing the housing issue, the members of the coalition left the chamber singing 'We Shall Overcome' (laziness or body odor?). It was now time to hear the rest of the people waiting to speak to the commission seated high on the dais. An alphabet soup of 'community groups' approached the podium and asked for (what else?) money; lots of money. One group called 'Movers' brought along retired Congresswoman Carrie Meek; this was interesting because I thought this "Movers" group could move this room full of leaches to another county and solve the problem. But disappointment was in the air as the former Congresswoman was there with her hand stretched out also asking for a meager $1.3 million of the county's $6.8 billion budget (roughly $3,000 for every man, woman and child in the county). Three brave souls approached the podium to complain about high taxes and the budget, but they were ignored for the most part. When someone dared to be critical of his commissioner and mention that he did not vote for her, a fellow commissioner jumped to the defense, warning the plebian that his words were inappropriate (I guess this must be one of those new 1st Amendment-free zones).
One Commissioner (Javier Souto) did say he was voting against the budget increase but the other commissioners ignored him and treated him with great levity and amusement. Finally I had enough, so I checked my pockets and made sure I still had the 50 or so dollars I had come in with (you never know in this crowd) and made my way to the parking lot where I encountered a female panhandler. The poor woman was wiry and her clothes were tattered; most folks were ignoring her. Even though I didn't have a loose buck or change, I approached her and gave her directions to the commission chambers and instructed her to 'think big' because inside the grandiose room money (especially mine and all the other taxpayers) was no object; the sky was the limit.
As midnight approached, while most of the residents of Miami-Dade County slept, the commissioners (like thieves in the night) ultimately approved the mammoth $6.8 billion budget. Many lobbyists, union bosses and 'activists' left the budget hearing smiling and content knowing their programs, pay raises and pensions would be funded. Early the next morning as the sun rose, Miami-Dade taxpayers arose to an added burden, but there was no time to think or reflect, they had to go to work to pay their taxes.