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I-Team: Audit Reveals Transit Tax Dollars Misspent

Each day Luis navigates the neighborhood streets of Palmetto Bay driving the town's free I-Bus.

"A lot of people got no cars, you know," Luis explained.

Tehka Hill is one of them.

"A lot of times when you have communities like Cutler Bay and Palmetto Bay the regular Metro Dade transportation doesn't always drive through those neighborhoods," Hill said as the bus made its rounds. "So community buses like this help make that connection. So it's very important."

But ridership on the I-Bus is low, leading some to wonder if it is the best use of tax money. The I-Bus is paid for through Palmetto's Bay share of the county-wide half penny sales tax that voters approved in 2002.

Each year roughly $175 million is collected. Eighty percent is given to the county to help underwrite the county bus service. The remaining 20 percent - or approximately $35 million a year - is divided among the 31 cities that were incorporated at the time of the vote.

A recently completed audit found that the cities have spent millions of dollars on projects that have nothing to do with transit or are specifically forbidden.

Miami Lakes spent part of their money for an on-demand taxi service. North Bay Village used the cash to build storm water drains. And Sweetwater used transit money to buy a garbage truck and pay police officers.

Charles Scurr is the executive director of the Citizens Independent Transit Trust, the agency which makes sure the money is spent appropriately. In cases where the money was misspent, the CITT can demand repayment.

"Our approach has always been to work with cities to try to identify and solve the problems and move forward," Scurr said.

Another problem exposed in the audits - hoarding. The transit tax is supposed to be used the year it was collected, but for years the City of Miami couldn't decide what type of trolley it wanted to run. It has been sitting on more than $5 million.

"I think in some cases our priorities are upside down," said County Manager George Burgess.

Burgess said he is worried cities like Palmetto Bay are trying to create their own bus service at the expense of the county

"I would rather see busses serving major corridors than I would see a circulator that is driving around empty," Burgess said.

Scurr said his staff has been working with cities like Palmetto Bay to improve ridership.

"So we think it's got promise," he said.

One reason for Burgess's concern is that since 2002, three new cities have incorporated -- Miami Gardens, Doral, and Cutler Bay. And they are now demanding their share of the transit tax. The 30 cities currently receiving tax money (ultra wealthy Indian Creek turned down the tax money) don't want to share their piece of the pie with the new cities, arguing the county should pay the cities out of the county portion of the tax.

The fight between the cities and the county over how best to divide up the transit tax has been looming for months and the Florida legislature last year demanded that the cities and the county come together to work out a solution. What that solution will entail nobody knows.

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