Miami’s proposed budget calls for lowered tax rate, more cops

For the first time since Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado took office in 2009, the city won’t have to cut services, freeze salaries or renegotiate union contracts to balance a $523.6 million operating budget proposed by city administrators for the upcoming year.

The 2013-14 plan proposes adding 25 more police officers in 2014 — potentially the first in a wave of hiring designed to grow the 1,087-officer department to as many as 1,144 cops. Two commissioners say the 25, however, don’t come close to meeting the city’s immediate needs.

The budget plan also maintains popular-but-strained social services that are losing federal funding. The city has dipped into its general fund for the last two years to keep the services, this year adding $550,000 for meals and transportation for senior citizens, and after-school care for children.

Otherwise, the proposal essentially leaves the budgets of city offices and departments flat but slightly lowers the tax rate, thanks to increased property values, attrition, savings from a consolidated recycling program and a fee charged to developers for street closures during construction.

The plan also includes a reserve fund of more than $57 million. The fund had been depleted over the past decade, in large part because of plummeting property values caused by the recession and skyrocketing pension costs.

Increases pension costs and other claims are offset by a slight reduction in the city’s debt service and a communication tax that is paid to the state. The savings allowed staff to propose using general fund money to maintain the social services that had been cut at the federal level.

“It’s the best budget of the last 10 years, it has service enhancement and tax reduction,” Regalado said.

The budget, which would take affect on Oct. 1, proposes lowering the property tax rate to $8.43 from $8.47 for every $1,000 of taxable property. That would mean an $8 savings for owners of a $200,000 home without a homestead exemption. Commissioners meet July 25 to discuss the budget, and are required to set a ceiling on the tax rate at that time that would go out in notices to homeowners.

During a pair of budget hearings in September the rate can be lowered, but not raised.

The plan calls for a budget increase of almost $9 million for the police department, the largest ticket item, to $167.3 million. That’s in large part because the city intends to hire the 25 new officers next year, said budget director Daniel Alfonso.

Alfonso said the increased property values along with other revenue boosts and some savings translated into an almost $12 million boost to the upcoming budget.

“The budgets in pretty much every department kept flat,” he said. “This was really set up a few years ago when administrators and elected leaders took the steps they did” to cut salaries and force unions into concessions.

Still, not everyone was thrilled with the budget proposal.

Miami Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff has repeatedly called for hiring hundreds of additional police officers. The 25 aren’t enough, he said.

“I’m dissatisfied because we’ll never get the necessary cops on the street,” he said.

Commissioner Francis Suarez echoed Sarnoff, saying there’s enough money to hire 100 police officers.

In March, City Manager Johnny Martinez said he would allocate funding for 33 additional police officers, after backing off a prior plan to add as many as 100. Chief Manuel Orosa has said 1,144 sworn officers is a reasonable goal.

Suarez, who is running against Regalado for the mayoral slot in November, also said even though the mayor has proposed lowering the overall property tax rate, he considers the plan an increase anyway.

Suarez pointed to a slight rise in the tax rate for the city’s operating budget. That number, however, will be more than offset by a decrease in debt service. The two combined are used to set the property tax rate.

Robert Suarez, head of the city’s firefighter union, said despite the department’s $99.6 million budget remaining relatively intact — the proposal calls for slashing $220,000 from a year ago — his department is desperately in need of new trucks and station repairs, in some cases to fix leaky roofs.

Over the past five years the fire department has taken the brunt of cuts, with some employees losing as much as 30 percent of their pay through slashed perks, pay and benefits.

“So much was taken from our department,’’ he said, which has resulted in reduced service. “So there are a lot of demands.’’

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