Since being elected mayor, my priority has been to get our county government back on a sustainable path that balances what our taxpayers can afford with the services that we need as a community. This has been a challenging, but necessary task and this year is no different.
Last Tuesday, I presented my proposed FY 2013-14 Budget to the Board of County Commissioners with a strong majority of the board voting in favor of the plan. Following my first two annual budgets, which reduced the combined operating tax rate in Miami-Dade County by over 16 percent, my current proposal for this year keeps tax rates flat. There are no increases to the Fire, Library, Countywide, or Unincorporated Municipal Service Area (UMSA) millage rates, which collectively support the public services that our residents rely on. Keeping these rates flat will help residents who are still struggling to make ends meet in an economy that is moving in the right direction, but has not yet fully recovered.
Nevertheless, we have managed to make sure that services important to our residents are maintained. We will still be: serving over 300,000 meals to our seniors in need; teaching thousands of children to swim; running summer camps, afterschool and senior programs in our parks; keeping at-risk youth out of our criminal system; and protecting our environment.
This year, we will have at least four new classes of police officers, and hope to have five with the approval of a federal grant, which will add 25 new officers. Without a tax raise, our Animal Services Department will still receive a major 40 percent budget boost budget to support the first stages of a no-kill plan, respecting the spirit of the nonbinding ballot question that voters supported in November.
Despite these positives, we also face serious challenges. Keeping the Fire millage rate flat will require the elimination of up to six of the department’s 139 units and affect up to 149 filled positions. Our library system will also be affected with hours of operation reduced; up to 12 libraries and 10 storefront facilities closed; and up to 251 filled positions eliminated.
The decision to close fire units and libraries is an especially difficult one. I will continue to work throughout the summer to lessen the service impacts to our residents and to reduce the number of layoffs. But I firmly believe that adversity can also bring opportunity. I see an opportunity to streamline and improve our fire-rescue services, and bring more innovation and technology to our libraries.
When I presented my initial budget proposal to the community two weeks ago, that plan included what I believed at the time were reasonable increases to the fire and library millages to maintain current levels of service. These proposals did not fund salary increases or new government programs — they simply allowed us to maintain current service levels. Also proposed was a small increase to the countywide millage rate that would have provided for the full implementation of the no-kill plan.
Despite these modest proposed increases, it quickly became clear to me that there is simply no support in our community for any tax rate increase at this time. The difficult reality is that many of our families and neighbors are still struggling. Our economy isn’t out of the woods yet.
Without a doubt, the past few weeks have been challenging ones at County Hall, and that will continue in the weeks ahead. But my job as mayor is to listen to the people, and their message has been heard! I am committed to continuing that conversation with town hall meetings in the coming weeks. With that in mind, I stand ready to carry out their charge and to make the tough choices that they demand of their elected leaders.
Carlos Gimenez is the mayor of Miami-Dade County.