Rising high school junior Tiffany Chen recently checked out a copy of The Great Gatsby, part of her summer reading list, from her local library branch in Pinecrest. Her friend uses the same library to study while he waits for his parents to pick him up after school. And yet another friend of Tiffany’s writes and emails her research papers at the Pinecrest branch since she does not have a computer at home.
“Without the library she wouldn’t have been able to turn in her papers because the school library closes really early,” 16-year-old Tiffany told county Mayor Carlos Gimenez Thursday night in Palmetto Bay as part of the second town hall meeting officials held to address residents’ concerns about the proposed 2013-14 budget.
With an 8-4 vote, the county commission agreed to keep a flat tax rate, a decision that resulted in a proposed budget that would close several library branches and three-fire trucks part of the Fire Department. The county has proposed to eliminate 600 positions from all of its departments.
Even though the Pinecrest Library Branch is not on the chopping block, Tiffany said the proposal to shut down other libraries still worries her.
“If it can happen in other places, it can eventually happen in Pinecrest, too,” she told the Miami Herald.
At the town hall, part of a series of six meetings, Gimenez told a crowd of more than 200 that 13 library branches are now on the chopping block. Prior to that, 14 facilities faced the ax but recently staff was able to save the California Club branch near Aventura. Like other libraries that may close, California Club is located in a shopping plaza, which increases its cost as the county has to pay rent. County Senior Advisor Lisa Martinez said the California Club library will be saved after a renegotiation of the lease cut rent in half.
That was not much consolation to book lovers, some of whom held signs reading ‘Libraries are the Future of our Kids’ and ‘Books Open Minds,’ and chided officials for the proposed budget cuts.
“I support literacy. I support our libraries,” said Ruth Trencher, 74-year-old retired teacher.
“If your proposed 0.297 millage rate had stayed in place as I had hoped it would, my tax bill for the year for the library would have been $7.33. I can’t buy Netflix for a month for that. You spoke of 600 jobs being lost this year. I understand that 251 library jobs are on the list, “ she continued, saying that the cuts disproportionately affect libraries.
In his response, Gimenez said that the county has four different taxing jurisdictions and money cannot be transferred from one to the other. The county library system and the Fire Department each have their own tax jurisdiction.
“We are open to suggestions. We are open to ideas. We are open to help,” Gimenez told Trencher.
“I would be delighted to help. Would you open the question back up to the commissioners again?” she asked, referring to the possibility of increasing taxes.
“I can sit here and be very popular and say yes, but I am not going to because I don’t believe we need to raise taxes,” said Gimenez, whose statement was followed by jeers from the audience.
Firefighters also spoke their mind at the town hall. Under the proposed budget, the Fire Department faces the elimination of three fire trucks.
“If my class was already paid for and budgeted for before training was even completed, how come I am being told that I might be laid off? If there was enough money to offer me the job, did you know that there might not be enough money in the budget to keep me on the job? ” said Isara Vimonsut, a firefighter whose position might get cut if the currently proposed budget passes. The 32-year-old Army veteran and father of a 2-year-old girl said he waited five years to become a Miami-Dade firefighter because the department was not hiring until recently.
“This is the county I really wanted to work for,” he told the Herald.
In addition, the county has decided not to increase taxes to turn the county’s animal shelter into a “no-kill” operation. In the fall 2012 election, 65 percent of the voters agreed to the non-binding question that would have increased the typical homeowner’s tax by $20 annually to pay for the program.
In its proposed budget, the county includes $4 million in additional funding for the Animal Services Department. Officials said the shelter is getting closer toward fulfilling a ‘no-kill’ plan, under which 90 percent of the pets in the shelter would be saved. Recent estimates released by the department show that 80 percent of dogs and 66 percent of cats are saved at the shelter. The county is also planning to build a new shelter, construction for which is expected to be completed in 2015.
But Pets’ Trust supporters still felt cheated.
“I see a car on the street with four flat tires, and I don’t offer to fix not just one, which is what you’ve offered to do, but I’d offer to fix all four,” said Michael Rosenberg, Pets’ Trust co-founder.
Added Rita Schwartz, also trust co-founder: “How can $4 million accomplish what Alex (Muñoz) and the experts admitted would take $19 million to do? The intelligent people of Miami-Dade County knew what they were voting for. They voted to fix the problem. And $4 million will not fix the problem.“