The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Miami-Dade unions face tough medicine to ensure county’s fiscal health

Home and condo sales are buzzing, but South Florida’s recovery remains delicate. Despite an uptick in property tax revenue, local governments still have whopping pension and benefits obligations, including escalating healthcare costs, to cover.

For Miami-Dade County, it means a $50 million shortfall from the coming fiscal year’s revenue projections. Mayor Carlos Gimenez has let union leaders know that the county will have to continue to extract a 5 percent contribution from workers’ base pay toward health insurance, and other concessions.

It’s a tough sell, for sure, but a necessary one.

County workers — much like private-sector workers after the Great Recession hit — have seen their salaries fall and their paycheck contributions to benefits rise. Nevertheless, continuing to tighten the belt until the local economy stabilizes is the only sensible solution.

Increasing the property tax is not an option when unemployment remains stubbornly close to 10 percent, according to April figures. As it is, the mayor also proposes a long-needed increase in sewer fees for residents to meet federal EPA requirements to start fixing a sewer system that has been neglected for decades.

Residents are stretched to the limit.

County officials will have to go back to the bargaining table with the unions to negotiate a continuation of the healthcare contribution for another year. Under previous negotiations, the mayor made a good faith effort to end the 5 percent contribution by Jan. 1, 2014 — if tax revenue delivered enough money.

Some union leaders have maintained that the county should go after fraud in homestead exemptions to secure more money for workers. Absolutely. In fact, newly elected Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera has a laser focus on fraudsters, including assisted living facilities run from homes that are claiming homestead exemptions. Investigations of fraudulent exemptions are a major focus of his office, which should bring relief to county residents and workers.

Mr. Gimenez has delivered a blueprint of what’s to come in next year’s budget, though it’s not yet finalized. By alerting county commissioners last week to the challenges ahead, the mayor is ensuring there are no last-minute surprises.

If the unions do not agree to the concessions, the county commission will have to resolve the dispute. Some commissioners will be tempted to protect unions whose workers are valuable campaign volunteers during elections. Truth is, there’s no way out unless commissioners can find other revenue.

The county is trying to balance needs with fiscal reality. Some fees, such as airlines’ landing fees at Miami International Airport and fire inspections for businesses, are expected to rise. Transit fares also would go up by 25 cents, as required by county law, because the fares are tied to the consumer-price index.

The mayor also plans to invest in more voting machines and equipment to ensure that the next election doesn’t produce the interminable lines we witnessed in 2012. That’s a big priority.

The good news? Several projects now underway bode well for Miami-Dade’s economic future, including the PortMiami tunnel and dredge, the proposed Airport City project and an outreach for more biotech jobs. Thousands of jobs will be generated and county revenue will rise, but it will take time and sacrifice to get there.

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