Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez proposed a stay-the-course budget Thursday for the next fiscal year that spares government services, funds programs for culture, seniors and children, and protects employees from layoffs.
Gimenez’s 2012-13 budget lowers the county’s overall property-tax rate by 2 percent, a reduction that could politically benefit him in his reelection bid next month. He campaigned a year ago on a promise to shrink the tax rate, which he and commissioners did last fall by nearly 12 percent.
And, on the most controversial sticking point, the mayor headed off another likely battle with unions by seeking to maintain a 4-percent employee healthcare contribution — but also setting money aside to cover the shortfall that would result should commissioners refuse to impose it.
Among the budget highlights:
• Restoring funds for the Miami Science Museum, the Miami Art Museum, HistoryMiami and the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens to 2006-07 levels;
• Refraining from propping up the general fund with millions borrowed from the Water and Sewer Department, as had been done in previous years, to save for anticipated costly repairs to the county’s antiquated system;
• Hiring the first two classes of police officers in three years, and recruiting new firefighters as needed to keep up with retirements.
“Our call volumes continue to increase, and we’ve been doing more and responding to more calls with less personnel for the past three or four years,” said Rowan Taylor, president of the Miami-Dade firefighters union, which has endorsed Gimenez, a former Miami fire chief. The department, unable to hire for several years, is short between 50 and 60 firefighters.
The spending plan is markedly different from the painful budget Gimenez put forth last year, two weeks after getting elected following the recall of Mayor Carlos Alvarez. Gimenez’s first budget laid out tough cuts and job losses, and relied on steep union concessions. In the end, the cuts were not as severe as initially feared.
Most unions hit an impasse over requiring employees to contribute the additional 4 percent of their base pay toward healthcare costs, for a total of 9 percent.
That concession, approved by a narrow, 7-6 majority of county commissioners earlier this year, is unlikely to pass muster again. Some commissioners are counting on union support in their own reelection races; one of them, Commissioner Barbara Jordan, swung the vote in favor of the concession but said she would not support it again.
Reading the political tea leaves, Gimenez’s budget sets aside $23 million to cover the cost of eliminating the additional 4-percent giveback from employees.
The proposal enables both the mayor and the commission to tally a win: The mayor gets to say he wanted a deeper tax-rate cut but did the responsible thing by budgeting for the commission’s likely refusal. Commissioners get to say they gave employees some of their pay back without going to another impasse.
If commissioners agree to continue the giveback, the mayor said, the $23 million pot could go toward improving services or further lowering the property-tax rate.
The 4 percent “was a tough sell last year, getting it through the commission,” Gimenez acknowledged in an interview.
Commissioners will meet Tuesday to set the preliminary tax rate. They will be able to lower but not raise it when they vote on the budget after two public hearings in September.
Four commissioners, and Gimenez and his chief opponent, Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, will be on the Aug. 14 election ballot. Runoffs, if needed, would be held in November. Five other candidates are also running for mayor.
Gimenez said he proposed the lower property-tax rate in light of an uptick in property values and new construction. Miami-Dade’s property-tax base increased for the first time in four years by nearly 2 percent, according to the property appraiser.
In a memo he sent the mayor in May, Martinez requested that any new money from a more robust tax roll go toward reducing the property-tax rate, restoring services or lowering the employee healthcare contribution. Martinez’s office said he wanted to review the budget Thursday evening before commenting.
John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said the fact that Gimenez set aside money in case commissioners shoot down the 4-percent giveback may be an election-year strategy to appease employees.
“He knows that the entire workforce is against him,” said Rivera, whose union has endorsed Martinez. “This might be a way of trying to get them hopefully to soften up and not vote against him.”
The administration, in preliminary talks with employee unions, has laid out an unpopular plan to lower or eliminate the 4-percent giveback in exchange for higher co-pays and more expensive coverage for dependents. The plan is not expected to garner union approval.
Gimenez’s budget does not propose pay raises for administrators or employees. The mayor said the county cannot afford raises until Miami-Dade’s economy has stabilized and his administration has finished shrinking the County Hall bureaucracy. This year’s budget is a continuation of the mayor’s two-year plan, started last year, which pared services and slashed the number of departments from 42 to 26 (now 25).
In the new budget, “We’re not asking for anybody to make any more sacrifices than we’re already making,” he said.
The budget sets aside more than $20 million — the same as the current year —for community-based organizations that provide services to children, seniors and the needy. There are no plans to close libraries or parks, or to reduce their hours of operation, an idea that drew much criticism when Gimenez’s administration suggested it last year.
Nor are there fee or rate hikes. Disposal charges paid by commercial properties and entities that collect garbage — such as private garbage-pickup companies — will go up based on the consumer-price index, as they do every year. A slightly higher landing fee that airlines pay the airport is also tentatively budgeted, though the fee is expected to hold steady once the final budget is adopted in September.
The mayor’s proposal eliminates 612 positions — the net total of doing away with vacant jobs and creating 106 new ones. Most of the vacancies resulted from the consolidation of county departments.
The plan reduces Gimenez’s office budget by 7 percent, following a 20 percent reduction last year, and maintains the same level of funding for commissioners’ district offices, which last year took a 10 percent cut.
The overall county budget would total $5.9 billion, down from nearly $6.2 billion last year. That includes $1.6 billion for construction spending, down from $1.7 billion last year following the completion or near completion of big-ticket projects, including the North Terminal at Miami International Airport and the Metrorail airport link.
The bulk of the budget is $4.3 billion for day-to-day expenses, including salaries and services, compared to nearly $4.5 billion last year.
That portion of the budget covers increased funding for the museums, whose county dollars were cut between 25 and 30 percent since 2006, said Roxanne Cappello, interim president/CEO and CFO of HistoryMiami.
“I’m very happy,” she said. “This gives us a little bit of a breather. We can add a little more to our exhibitions. We can continue to add curriculum to the programs that we deliver to the school system.”
Unlike in years past, the county will not be propping up its general fund with money transfers from the water and sewer department, which is expected to be on the hook soon for a multibillion-dollar plan being negotiated with federal regulators to upgrade Miami-Dade’s system. The department loaned $25 million to the general fund last year, which the general fund will begin paying back next year.
The budget also delegates the federally funded Head Start program for pre-K children to private providers and the public school system. The county, which administers the federal funds for the program, had been running Head Start using a mix of private providers and county facilities run by county employees.
Gimenez said the school district is trying to hire those employees as teachers. They won’t get paid the same as in the county, he said, but the program could be expanded to 500 more children with the same federal funding because it will be cheaper to run.Commissioners, who received the thick budget books Thursday afternoon, were digesting the mayor’s proposal.
Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who voted against the 4-percent healthcare giveback, said he had hoped Gimenez would eliminate the concession himself. But Suarez was glad to hear money had been set aside for commissioners to do away with the contribution.
“We have a good start here,” he said.