Miami Commission to discuss employee bonus vs. hiring more cops

After four years of pay and benefit cuts, Miami’s nearly 3,000 employees could get some relief: a one-time 3 percent bonus that would cost the city $6.5 million this year.

But the proposal being pushed by the administration isn’t assured of sailing through. Though city financial leaders say they have identified close to $30 million in savings this year, the commission chairman wants the money to go toward hiring more cops for the understaffed police department.

The bonus idea, offered by the budget department for Thursday’s commission meeting, is a discussion item that doesn’t require an immediate vote. Budget Director Danny Alfonso said he’s been talking with commissioners over the past two weeks about what to do with the savings.

Alfonso said Miami is in much better financial shape than in past years, due to unexpected revenues from building permits, mural fees, emergency transport fees and contingency reserves.

Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff and Commissioner Francis Suarez both said they wouldn’t be surprised if there was a vote Thursday that directed surplus money to specific purposes.

Sarnoff wants the money to go toward hiring more police. Suarez said he hasn’t decided his higher priority: more cops or employee bonuses.

Sarnoff said the bonus proposal is as much about politics as policy.

“This commission is heading toward a vote … it’s an election year,” he said.

Sarnoff has been arguing for months that the police department, with 1,087 sworn officers, is understaffed compared to similar departments around the country. He would like to hire as many as 300 new officers. The administration says it’s looking at hiring 33 later this year.

Suarez, while not against hiring more police, also would like to see money go to employees who have faced cutbacks the past four years as the city balanced its budget.

“There have been discussions about giving back to employees,’’ he said. “A vote is definitely possible if we can all come to an agreement.’’

Suarez said he also is open to putting some of the money into a reserve fund that is about $70 million short of where it should be.

The plan by Alfonso, the budget director, also calls for one-time spending of $659,000 to restore educational bonuses for police officers, bringing the total fiscal impact to $7.2 million. An educational bonus is paid when an officer takes higher-ed classes.

Rewarding employees with a one-time bonus instead of a pay raise is beneficial to the city because it does not hike salaries and pension benefits permanently.

Cuts to base pay have been a major sticking point with the city’s shrinking unions, some of whose members have lost more than 30 percent of their take-home pay over the past four years.

Since 2010, instead of negotiating new union contracts, commissioners have repeatedly invoked a state statute called Financial Urgency. The law, aimed at cities suffering a financial emergency, essentially allows commissioners to mandate cuts on unionized employees.

“The unions don’t think the administration acted in good faith,” Suarez said. “I think it’s time to start looking at the possibility of sharing.”

The unions concur.

But Javier Ortiz, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the proposed 3 percent bonus would be “an insult.”

He said over the past four years his troops have lost 9 to 15 percent in special pay, including extra money for being on the bomb squad or pursuing higher education. On top of that, he said, officers’ pay has been cut between 7 and 9 percent, and checks were reduced even more when the city required employees to contribute 10 percent toward their pensions.

“We want our benefits restored to where they were in 2009,” Ortiz said.

Also on Thursday’s agenda, commissioners are expected to vote on allowing Wynwood retailers to create their own taxing district, and are scheduled to move forward on a controversial redistricting plan that would move the Shorecrest neighborhood from Sarnoff’s district into Michelle Spence-Jones’ District 5.

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