Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Miami-Dade’s budget woes

 

OUR OPINION: It’s a fine balancing act avoid sacrificing public services and not raise taxes during tight times

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

Libraries won’t be closed though hours will be trimmed. Firefighters might be spared layoffs if a federal grant comes through. Even the free spaying and neutering of strays or pets for owners who can’t afford it will get a boost of $4 million — about 40 percent more than in this year’s Miami-Dade County budget. Yet some people want more.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has been caught between the rock of fiscally tight times and the hard place of wanting to keep county services intact. Just keeping tax revenues intact won’t allow expansion for a Pets’ Trust this year at the level its supporters want, almost $20 million. But the $4 million is a strong first step.

As the County Commission takes up the mayor’s proposed budget this month, unions will continue to push for better pay and benefits. Certainly, the county’s nearly 26,000 employees have faced tough times, losing certain benefits and paying more for others, such as the county’s health insurance program. But workers in the private sector have also seen their wages drop and benefits cut.

Plus, the benefits that some county workers have enjoyed — such as higher pay differential for working nights and cushy pension plans that factor in all sorts of perks — are outrageously out of sync with the times. Private employers haven’t offered pensions for years, and most people in private businesses don’t get extra cash just because they work under the moonlight.

No, the fundamental problem in the county’s budget are the types of union rules, negotiated by past county administrations, that are unsustainable.

Last week, the commissioners backed the mayor to rework the contracts in upcoming collective-bargaining negotiations. Six of the county’s unions had asked commissioners to end a concession they made after the Great Recession that kept their salaries intact but required them to contribute 5 percent of their base pay to the county’s healthcare plan.

The unions want the county to end the 5 percent requirement, maintaining that the county’s health fund reserves can be used to pay for the $22 million or so needed to restore their pay. Not so fast. Commission Chair Rebeca Sosa was right to ask the mayor to get clarification from the state as to what amount is required. Dipping into reserves one year would not help in future years if property values and tax revenue don’t continue to rise.

Commissioners settled on making one exception — for 637 or so sanitation workers who are the lowest paid and have been hit hardest by the 5 percent requirement. The mayor now has to decide whether to veto the restoration of their pay or have the waste management department find $1.1 million from its budget (which is generated by trash collection fees, not property taxes). If there’s one group that made an eloquent case for restoring pay it is these workers.

Still, the way the unions’ concessions were negotiated by the previous administration of Carlos Alvarez, under then-county manager George Burgess, other unions can “piggyback” when one union is offered a new deal on certain concessions. In this case, county workers in the Aviation Department, also a self-sustaining department that relies on fees for its budget, would qualify for restoration of the 5 percent in pay — that’s another $1.7 million. This is a slippery slope.

Another budgetary trick used by the past administration was to transfer $7 million from the then-flush library system budget to use for grants to arts groups when the recession hit tourism hard and the Convention Development Tax dollars used for arts groups were tanking. Now that tourism is healthy, Mayor Gimenez should look to CDT dollars to pay back the library fund.

As the county’s economy improves there will be more opportunities to do better for county workers without strangling taxpayers.

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