Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Another tough year


OUR OPINION: Miami-Dade must keep to a no-frills budget

Nobody wants their taxes to go up.

So when Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez proposed recently to increase the property tax rate for unincorporated areas to maintain their libraries and fire service, and to increase the countywide property tax rate for the new Pets’ Trust, which two-thirds of voters approved in a straw ballot, he was met with the predictable gasps from homeowners and business owners who expect budget discipline instead of tax hikes. Apparently the mayor, who under his watch has reduced the combined tax rate by 16.25 percent since 2010-11, got the message.

Last week, he pulled back on the $19 million it would cost to fully fund the Pets’ Trust and cobbled together $4 million more from general funds for a no-frill, no-kill facility. Remember, this was a nonbinding proposal that had no costs attached. For any future straw ballot questions the county should include the estimated cost and how it would be covered so that people aren’t voting in a vacuum.

Now the mayor has pulled back to a flat budget, with no tax increase for fire protection and libraries serving unincorporated areas, too. This will mean fewer services, but it is the only scenario that realistically balances county residents’ true needs with the wish list of wants that everyone would like if we could just print money.

The new proposal will eliminate 149 filled positions in the fire department and 251 in the library system. The plan would close the libraries that are least used and the fire stations that are near city-run stations that can take those calls.

In a county where more than one in five residents are on food stamps and the jobs market remains tight, a flat budget is warranted. Consider that the water and sewer system rates are about to increase to cover almost a billion dollars in upkeep after decades of neglect. That’s an investment that must be made. Citizens property insurance rates also are taking a toll.

This year the county finally got a break because property values started to improve, but the state increased all county governments’ contributions to pension plans — a $91 million hit for Miami-Dade — and reduced payments to Medicaid patients, another $8 million hit that will affect Jackson, the county’s public hospital.

In the midst of this reality, public-employee unions want Miami-Dade to drop the 5 percent it charges its workers to cover county healthcare costs. (The firefighters union has its own healthcare plan.)

Restoring that 5 percent (about $33.5 million) would be tough without a tax increase. The real issue are the pensions.

Until state and local governments move away from defined benefit plans and toward contribution plans, like a 401(k), the public cost of pensions will only continue to bust the taxpayers. The 5 percent was a concession to the unions to leave salaries at a higher, artificial level that would be factored in for pensions come retirement. Instead of reducing workers’ salaries by about 4 percent, which is what was needed three years ago to achieve a balanced budget, the unions preferred a 5 percent “health insurance contribution” from a higher salary.

Now the unions’ leaders say the county is squirreling away twice as much as it needs to cover health expenses. County officials maintain that the amount is a prudent to cover escalating healthcare costs. This will have to be settled in negotiations with the unions and perhaps in court. But, clearly, the taxpayers can’t give more.

As it is, holding the tax rate flat will still mean a small countywide millage rate increase to pay off bonds that voters approved for projects a decade ago. That will amount to about $20 more for a home assessed at $150,000.

When commissioners meet on Tuesday to set the tax rate for the coming year they will face pressure from county workers, animal lovers and citizens concerned about losing a nearby fire station or library. And they will face the reality check of overburdened taxpayers who can’t give any more.

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