News Analysis

Miami-Dade mayor calls his proposal to hike tax rate a political ‘misstep’

 

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the man who seemed prescient when he opposed an unpopular property-tax rate hike that hastened his predecessor’s ouster, didn’t see the political backlash coming when he proposed a tax increase of his own.

So intense was the outcry against Gimenez’s plan this month that he began backtracking just a day after unveiling his 930-page budget, surprising even top county administrators with his snap decision to reduce the hike.

Five days later, the mayor reversed course completely. He abandoned the rate increase altogether, calling it a “misstep,” and framed his new position as a sign that he listens to the people.

“People say I’m a flip-flopper,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald in an interview. “The thing is, hey, if you have to own up to it, the sooner, the better.”

The mayor justified his initial rate hike by saying reflected the cost of providing public services in Florida’s largest county. “I’m a pretty good administrator,” he said repeatedly, “but I’m not a magician.”

When he realized he didn’t have the political support to push the increase through, he cut his losses and acknowledged his miscalculation.

But his detractors — and suddenly there are many more of them — paint a much dimmer picture of Gimenez’s striking evolution on the tax rate, which will now remain flat and could force up to 400 employee layoffs, 22 library closures and the elimination of six fire and rescue trucks.

At best, they say, Gimenez, despite frequently conducting opinion polls to gauge the popularity of his policies, misread county commissioners’ will and lost touch with public anti-tax sentiment a mere two years after his election following the tumultuous recall of Carlos Alvarez.

They note that the floated tax-rate hike followed the short-lived — and ultimately unsuccessful — plan that Gimenez, an opponent of Alvarez’s public financing for the Miami Marlins’ ballpark, orchestrated to use public dollars to fund part of a renovation to the Miami Dolphins’ football stadium.

At worst, critics contend Gimenez shirked from defending his principles, wavering for political expediency as soon as he realized he didn’t have the votes on the commission dais and listeners of influential Spanish-language radio began turning against him.

“His behavior is erratic. It’s confusing, and it’s a disservice to this community,” labor union leader Fred Frost of the Miami Economic Sustainability Alliance told commissioners at the July 16 meeting where they adopted the flat tax rate.

“We need to have calm, stable and effective leadership. We cannot be governed by a bumper sticker.”

Some commissioners, however, praised the mayor for his swift reversal.

“I know it takes courage sometimes to rethink one’s position,” Commissioner Juan C. Zapata said. “It will serve this community well.”

Gimenez, a former Miami fire chief and city manager, has long considered himself more of an administrator than a politician. That posture served him well as a Miami-Dade commissioner seeking to become the strong mayor running one of the nation’s largest municipal governments.

But perhaps bolstered by his reelection to a full, four-year term last year, Gimenez appeared to lack political chops in his handling of the proposed tax-rate hike.

“He’s not reaching out to people who have the pulse of the people,” said Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, who still counts himself as a Gimenez supporter despite pointedly criticizing his tax-hike proposal.

Pizzi suggested mayors quickly become County Hall insiders. “When you go to the 29th floor, you become surrounded by bureaucrats,” he said. “You start to lose touch with your principles.”

Gimenez’s 2013-14 budget came together in June, before and during the mayor’s three-week trip to Europe. Most of the voyage comprised a mission to promote the county to foreign businesses, with Gimenez tacking on a few personal vacation days at the end.

When he returned, the mayor publicly proposed the tax-rate hike before sitting down with commissioners — six of whom face reelection next year — to measure their appetite for an increase. The hike would be different than the one that cost Alvarez his mayorship, Gimenez argued, because it was much smaller and did not come accompanied by employee raises in the middle of an economic recession.

Only after those meetings, once he had already announced the rate increase at a July 10 news conference, did Gimenez seem to realize that the commission couldn’t stomach the hike. Two years earlier, he noted, the same commissioners opposed his proposed library closures. But that was in a year when the tax rate was slashed.

Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who heads the board’s finance committee, chided Gimenez’s administration from the dais for failing to warn elected officials about potential budget shortfalls.

“There were no red flags thrown up,” he said.

Leading up to the commission’s tax-rate vote, Gimenez’s office heard from dozens of outraged homeowners. A thick pile of email and phone-call records compiled by his constituent services office featured messages in English and Spanish bashing the mayor for forgetting about the elderly living on fixed incomes and reneging on his small-government campaign platform. They promised consequences at the ballot box.

“Just as Carlos Alvarez was ousted, we will also fight and oust you,” one email said in Spanish.

Gimenez said the negative public reaction indicates that not only would residents reject a rate hike this year but also in coming years — an argument he intends to make to labor unions next year when their county contracts must be renegotiated.

An automated robopoll of 1,500 likely voters conducted by Armando Ibarra of the A.I. Advisory firm July 10-11 — after Gimenez announced the rate hike — found that respondents opposed any tax-rate increases by wide margins.

The poll, which had a margin of error of 2.5 percent, found that 72 percent of respondents opposed a hike for fire or for library services, compared to 15 percent who supported it for fire and 18 percent who supported it for libraries. The rest said they weren’t sure.

Even after being told a flat rate could lead to longer fire rescue response times, for example, 59 percent of respondents continued to oppose the increase, compared to 26 percent who supported it.

Reading the writing on the wall, Gimenez took back his tax-hike proposal the day before the commission’s tax-rate vote. The quick flip allowed him to save some face, instead of giving the commission an opening to shoot down his plan.

Merrett Stierheim, the veteran municipal administrator and former county manager, credited Gimenez with altering his plans.

“You’ve got to be pragmatic when you’re setting policy,” he said. “And you’ve got to know that you’ve got the horses to carry it out, and I don’t think they were there. I don’t think that he needs to be spanked by anybody for doing that.”

Since the 8-4 commission vote to keep the tax-rate flat, Gimenez’s office has received hundreds of emails and calls imploring the county to maintain fire and rescue trucks and keep libraries open. Firefighters have drawn up protest signs and staged small demonstrations at fire stations.

Activists had hoped to get commissioners to reconsider their decision on Tuesday, but the board maintained its plans to cancel that meeting as part of the commission’s annual August summer break.

Gimenez, for his part, has defended his change of heart in media interviews, sometimes making light of his political predicament.

You’re skinny, TeleMiami host Tomás García Fusté told him on his daily Spanish-language show Friday morning.

Gimenez responded in jest: It’s from dodging bullets, he said.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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