In a surprise last-minute move, Miami-Dade commissioners decided in the wee hours Wednesday morning to raid rainy-day reserves to avoid laying off 169 library workers and slashing library hours in the coming budget year.
Though the action will save the jobs of employees who turned out in force to a public hearing that began Tuesday afternoon, it will create a whopping $20 million budget hole next year to fund the county’s 49 public libraries at the same level as this year.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez warned against tapping the one-time reserves, since they would not be available again to cover recurring expenses. Unless Miami-Dade overhauls the way it funds and runs the libraries between now and next year, commissioners will have to cut services or hike the property-tax rate in 12 months.
“It’s on us,” Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell said, acknowledging the burden the board agreed to take on. “It’s our responsibility.”
Gimenez pointedly reminded commissioners that six of them face reelection in 2014 and will almost certainly oppose a tax-rate hike — in which case they may have just delayed but not avoided the steep cuts.
“Eventually, this government is going to have to face reality. I’d rather face it now than later,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to raise taxes when you’re going to election.”
But commissioners appeared thrilled and relieved to find a solution for the time being. They voted 9-4 to use $7.8 million in library reserves.
Bell and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss and Xavier Suarez voted in favor of the compromise. Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Javier Souto and Juan C. Zapata voted against. The hearing began at 5:01 p.m. Tuesday and ended at 1:35 a.m. Wednesday.
The commission gave serious consideration to a short-lived proposal by Heyman to raise the property-tax rate that funds libraries, in what would have been a stunning reversal of the board’s July decision to hold the rate steady. Seven of 13 commissioners appeared ready to sign off on the hike and delay the final budget hearing from Sept. 19 to October. But fearing a likely Gimenez veto they would have been unable to override without a nine-member majority, they opted for using the reserves instead.
Other cuts to the budget, including the elimination of three fire trucks and layoffs of 59 firefighters, remain. The county has applied for a federal grant to fund the positions and save the trucks.
Even before the compromise, Gimenez had said he was confident his staff would find a way to keep all libraries open for the same number of hours. About a third of the county’s 49 library branches would have otherwise scaled back their hours dramatically, opening a mere 16 hours a week, down from their current 40 hours.
But he wouldn’t have been able to save the jobs of the library employees, many of whom attended the budget hearing, asking commissioners to rethink a proposed budget they said would decimate the public library system.
Despite the deal, Gimenez said he will move forward with the creation of a working group to plan for the long-term future of the libraries. That’s especially important now because the group will have to find how to rework the system in the next year or be stuck with cuts or a significant tax-rate hike.