Even with negotiations between the City of Miami and its four unions starting to sour last month, city leaders didn’t fret about being able to close a $60 million hole in the city’s $485 million operating budget.
That’s because the city had a powerful card to play: a legal maneuver known as “financial urgency.” The seldom-used provision in state law allows municipalities to force employee concessions to balance the books, even after union contracts are in place.
Financial urgency has been a nightmare for labor unions, which have little control once a municipality invokes the statute. Unions see the provision as a way for local governments to sidestep negotiations — and balance their budgets by slashing employee pay and benefits.
In the case of Miami, union leaders point out that city administrators have declared financial urgency three years in a row, and that the city’s financial outlook is actually improving. Revenues from property taxes are up over last year, and the city commission has given a tentative nod to lowering the overall tax rate.
“They are abusing the statute,” said Anthony Hatten, president of the local AFSCME, the city’s general employees’ union. “They are using the economy as an excuse to really hit us harder than they have to.”
Leaders of the city’s four unions — firefighters, police, sanitation and general employees — have called on Miami commissioners to raise taxes and hike the rents on city-owned properties.
Miami City Manager Johnny Martinez contends that declaring a financial urgency for the coming budget year was necessary because salaries make up 80 percent of the city’s budget and the unions were unwilling to negotiate concessions.
“The financial situation is getting a little better, but not a lot better,” Martinez said. “There’s still a gap we need to fill and we don’t have agreement from the unions.”What makes the debate tricky is that financial urgency is not defined in state statute. It is different from declaring a “financial emergency,” which has clearly defined conditions, including the failure to pay debt, employee salaries or retirement benefits. A financial emergency can lead to a state takeover of a city’s finances.
The best definition of urgency comes from the state Public Employees Relations Commission, which serves as the appeals board for labor disputes. But even that language is murky, calling it “a financial condition calling for immediate attention and demanding prompt and decisive action.”
“The fundamental problem with this section of the statute is that it is unusually vague,” said Robert Suarez, president of the Miami firefighters’ union. “There is no real standard here.”
Suarez believes the law may violate the Florida Constitution.
“The right to collective bargaining is a constitutional right and nothing shall abridge that right,” he said. “Yet with the financial urgency clause, there is inherently a problem.”
Miami City Attorney Julie O. Bru sees it differently.
“The intent of the statute is to give the legislative body flexibility,” she said, adding that emergencies come in too many forms to list in a statute.