By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Reading again from the transcript, Teele continued: "'So we ask Mr. Teele, don't the wishes of Dade's Hispanic population, which represents half of the electorate, count in regards to the gasoline issue?'
"To my knowledge," Teele interjected, "Hispanics, blacks, whites, and all persons are going to pay the gas tax, and not just one group. But obviously WQBA has a different view about how the laws of this country work." WQBA's handling of the tax issue, Teele said, was "exactly what I would expect a radio station under Mr. Castro would do."
And then, drawing a bead on a fuming Acosta, Teele added, "Sir, I will not pander to you or anyone."
But pander the commission would. Despite hearing testimony in support of the current tax from nearly a dozen municipal mayors, representatives from the school board, and anxious parents (the only speaker in favor of reducing the tax was Acosta), the commission voted 7-6 to roll back two cents, which will cost the county $15 million per year in needed funding and save the average driver a whopping twelve dollars per year -- assuming, of course, the oil distributors and station owners pass on to motorists the two-cent savings.
Besides Ferre, the other crucial vote for repeal was cast by Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who had originally voted for the tax. Diaz de la Portilla's flip-flop was particularly disappointing to supporters of the tax because, as a former chairman of the commission's transportation committee, he understood better than most why it is needed. "I personally believe that while the gas tax is one of the most unpopular taxes we have, it is also one of the most equitable," the commissioner explained in an interview last week. "But I don't think I should be in a position to impose my will on the people. I have no right to impose my beliefs on the people I serve."
Some people, of course, define leadership as having the courage to do what you know is right even if that might be unpopular. But in this mean season, Diaz de la Portilla felt he had little choice. Up for re-election in September, he so far has no opponent. But it seems almost certain that if he had voted for maintaining the gas tax, and as a result had cast the deciding vote, he would have been vilified on Spanish-language radio as being the only Hispanic commissioner to support the tax. It is also likely that an opponent would have entered the race with a hot-button campaign issue that even the President of the United States decided to sidestep this year.
Those voting to reduce the gas tax: Penelas, Ferre, Diaz de la Portilla, Millan, Javier Souto, Pedro Reboredo, and Bruce Kaplan. Those against the reduction: Teele, Sorenson, Margolis, Burke, Dennis Moss, and Betty Ferguson.
Hoping to deflect criticism over the gas tax issue, Diaz de la Portilla later said he thought it was hypocritical of those who argued that public money was desperately needed for transportation problems to then embrace a plan to build a $165 million arena for a billionaire. "I have a problem with those who argue forcibly in support of keeping the gas tax and then give public dollars to the Miami Heat," he complained. "Now, that was a bad decision."
Perhaps no two votes taken in the same week could better define this commission and its priorities than the repeal of the gas tax and the commitment of more than $430 million of public money over the next 35 years to build a new bayfront arena. In one of the more moving presentations during the commission debate, representatives from the Human Services Coalition of Dade County described the human needs that could be met with the roughly $14 million per year the county will spend on the arena project.
For only $11 million per year, commissioners were told, they would be able to provide day care for the 3600 children from poor and working-class families who are on waiting lists. For about $14 million per year the commission could also pay for foster care for 1723 physically or sexually abused children who have been removed from their homes. Or they could expand Dade's Head Start program to include an additional 5000 kids.
Commissioners quickly dismissed these ideas as demagoguery, and voted that current state law only allows the commission to use the proposed funding -- which is coming from a tax on hotel rooms -- for convention, tourist, or sports facilities. But according to attorney Dan Paul, if commissioners were so inclined, they could go to Tallahassee and ask that the legislature expand the categories for which the tax money can be used. And Diaz de la Portilla later added that the commission might have been more creative in its approach. For example, he said, by using the tourist tax money to fund certain programs currently being paid for out of the county's general fund, commissioners could have freed up those funds to use any way the commission saw fit.
But a majority of commissioners had their priorities set, and despite seven hours of discussion, the vote was never much in doubt. It passed easily, with only Diaz de la Portilla, Penelas, Sorenson, and Ferguson voting against the arena. Groaned Diaz de la Portilla: "Last week was a hard week.