Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade will raid reserves to avoid library layoffs, maintain hours

 

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

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.

The mayor also said he has asked the county auditor to examine whether nearly $7.5 million moved from the library budget in 2009 to fund cultural programs inside the library tax district was improperly spent. If so, Gimenez said his administration would develop a repayment plan over several future years to put the money back in the library budget from the general fund.

Desperate to find alternative funding for libraries and other county departments, Sosa went as far as to suggest Miami-Dade establish a mechanism for residents to donate to their chosen programs. The parks department already has a foundation, and the library department also has a fundraising arm.

At one point Tuesday, a group of about 35 library staffers and supporters stood behind the microphone, some of them with their arms draped around each other. They noted that libraries serve the community’s most vulnerable, including children, the elderly and the unemployed.

And they emphasized that the taxes that fund libraries, which are separate from the county’s general fund, have been drastically reduced since Gimenez took office in 2011.

For two years, the library system operated using surplus funds from previous years. Those have now run out — so the county must raise the tax-rate to fund the system or considerably shrink its expenses.

Gimenez’s administration should have foreseen the budget gap and made a plan two years ago to sustain the system, librarian Ellen Book said. “Now the library’s financially bankrupted,” she said.

While a majority of the 100 or so people who spoke opposed service cuts, a few said they could not handle a higher tax bill.

“No more taxes. Enough already,” elderly resident Modesto Perez said in Spanish.

Despite police detecting a suspicious package just outside County Hall an hour before the meeting began, the hearing was not delayed. Miami-Dade police closed two parking lots by the Government Center Metrorail station for about two hours until a bomb-squad member blew up the abandoned duffle bag.

Inside the commission chambers, not all of the comments centered on libraries. A couple of speakers said the county shortchanges its sanitation workers. Others called for more funding for community-based organizations. One woman said Miami-Dade needs to invest more money in mental-health services for jail inmates.

Fire-union representatives dressed in matching yellow T-shirts to oppose cuts to that department. Fire Rescue Lt. Lisa Wood urged commissioners to find more dollars to keep a venom response unit in place — instead of “redeploying” its staff to other fire operations duties — as the department plans to do.

“We feel that our services that we provide are more valuable than the risk that would be presented by losing our 24-hour coverage,” Wood said.

The mayor said the department would keep its anti-venin reserve and medication-dispensing licenses and distribute the antidotes through rescue personnel.

Dressed in their signature red, proponents of the Pets’ Trust, an initiative to stop killing dogs and cats at the county shelter, repeatedly pointed to a non-binding question approved by an overwhelming majority of voters last November endorsing the animal-care project.

But most of the night was dominated by library activists in white “Save Our Libraries” shirts. Their backers included the mayors of Pinecrest and South Miami, the vice mayor of Opa-locka and the chairwoman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.

“This would be the first time in my three-and-a-half years as mayor that my residents have contacted me to raise their taxes on anything,” South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard said. “It’s an unusual situation.”

Speakers at the hearing directed much of their anger at Gimenez, who was absent from the dais for an extended period having Cuban food for dinner in a room adjacent to the chambers. His communications director said the mayor, who previously held six town-hall style meetings on the budget, was watching the hearing while he ate.

During the hearing, an automated telephone poll reached out to some voters, who were asked among other things about the tax rate and Gimenez’s job approval. The telephone recording did not identify who was behind the poll.

The mayor’s initial budget in July proposed hiking the tax rate to maintain library and fire-rescue services and fully fund the Pets’ Trust. He then backtracked, citing political pressure and a lack of commission support. On Tuesday, speaker after speaker chided Gimenez for failing to stick to his original intentions and selling a higher tax rate to commissioners and the public.

At the beginning of the night, Gimenez said his administration does not take the proposed budget’s “real and significant impacts” on residents and county employees lightly.

But he also made a point of saying county librarians, with their required master’s degrees, make an average annual base salary of $70,300 without counting benefits — suggesting their labor union should negotiate personnel costs to avoid layoffs. Activists disputed the salary number, countering that many of the library workers in line to lose their jobs are not full-fledged librarians and make less money.

Gimenez highlighted other portions of the $4.3 billion day-to-day operating budget, including that it envisions hiring four new classes of police officers.

“Striking the right balance between the services that our residents expect and doing so at a price they can afford is always a challenge,” Gimenez said. “This budget maintains the vast majority of services that we provide to our residents.”

A previous version of this article said the vote had been 8-4, with Suarez absent, as recorded by the commission clerk. Suarez had in fact voted in favor.

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