After a court victory Thursday, Miami City Manager Johnny Martinez can declare financial urgency after all.
But city leaders are hoping the legal maneuver, which lays the groundwork for the city commission to force employee concessions, won’t be necessary to balance the $485 million budget.
The Third District Court of Appeal on Thursday overturned an injunction issued by Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Abby Cynamon that had voided Martinez’s declaration of financial urgency in July. The injunction was issued after the Fraternal Order of Police sued the city, arguing that the commission — not the manager — ought to have invoked the law.
The commission can now make unilateral changes to employee contracts to balance the budget.
“There is no longer an injunction in place that prohibits the city from proceeding with financial urgency,” Miami City Attorney Julie O. Bru said.
But Bru said she and other top administrators were encouraged by recent talks with the city’s four labor unions.
“Hopefully, there will be some kind of agreement [on concessions] that won’t require these kinds of extraordinary measures,” she said.
FOP Vice President Javier Ortiz said the union plans to move forward with a separate lawsuit related to the city’s 2010 declaration of financial urgency. That lawsuit alleges Miami has no grounds to invoke the law.
“I am confident that we will prevail,” Ortiz said. “In the meantime, we will continue on course with the goal of reaching an agreement in the city of Miami.”
City leaders had hoped to use financial urgency to plug a $40 million budget hole.
Martinez invoked the statute in July, as the Miami city manager had done each of the past two years. But in a ruling that caught top administrators by surprise, Cynamon held that the Miami charter and city code “leave no doubt as to the necessity of the City Commission authorizing the declaration of financial urgency.”
In the weeks that followed, city commissioners never held a meeting to discuss the possibility of declaring urgency themselves. The city attorney, meanwhile, filed an appeal.
Experts agree that the financial urgency statute is unusually vague. The language does not define “financial urgency,” nor does it outline the procedure for declaring it.
Making matters more challenging, financial urgency has only been invoked a handful of times since the statute was written in 1995, and there have been few legal challenges to help guide judges.
The city and the police union made their cases to a panel of appeals judges Thursday.
Assistant City Attorney John Greco said the trial court had “added language that does not exist in the statute by requiring that the City Commission vote.”
Greco further argued that city manager ought to be able to declare urgency because he has authority over the city’s budget and finances.
“This injunction stripped the city manager of his duties to prepare the budget,” Greco said.
But FOP attorney Robert Klausner insisted that the wrong officer had made the decision.
“All the city commission had to do was get in a room and hold up three hands, and that hasn’t happened in the last 42 days,” Klausner told the judges. “The city is asking you to help them pass the buck.”
The Third District did not issue an opinion Thursday, but it did issue an order reversing Cynamon’s injunction.
Commission Chairman Francis Suarez said the reversal doesn’t change the fact that the city needs to slash $40 million from the budget by the end of the month.
“This is another arrow in the quiver in terms of options we could exercise,” Suarez said. “But it doesn’t mean it is something that will need to be utilized. At the end of the day, we would prefer to have contracts that all parties agree to.”
The city and the police union have been meeting to negotiate possible concessions. Leaders on both sides say they are close to reaching a deal on a two-year contract that will save the city money by changing the way pension benefits are calculated. In some cases, police department employees will have to contribute more to their retirement plans.
The plan under consideration will also provide the department with new police cars, uniforms and equipment.
“We have no choice but to work with the city,” Ortiz said. “We don’t want to see the city fail or go into bankruptcy.”