For the past two weeks Coconut Grove residents have been calling for a bigger police presence, saying crime is ticking upward. They’ve promised to show up in force Thursday, flooding City Hall’s chamber during the first of two scheduled hearings on the upcoming budget.
The group, led by pollster Fernand Amandi, took City Hall by storm last week, 246 people strong, after Amandi sent out email blasts highlighting recent burglaries in his neighborhood.
“We cannot stress enough how important it is to have a strong, in-person turnout of Grove residents to demand proactive, short-term AND long-term solutions on this crime problem from our city and law enforcement leaders,” Amandi wrote.
Now the group is demanding that Miami redirect $10 million in Mayor Tomás Regalado’s $523.6 million proposed 2014 budget to hire police officers. The group has the support of Miami Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff, who has argued unsuccessfully for over a year that the city needs more cops. Also on board is police union President Javier Ortiz, who wants concessions made by officers past tight budget years undone.
The mixed group of supporters, however, is missing one key ingredient: Police Chief Manuel Orosa.
“Crime is not up in Coconut Grove,” Orosa told the Miami Herald. “Their fear is that crime is getting out of control. In reality crime is one percentage point below last year.”
The numbers compiled by Orosa’s staff are passed along to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. His charts show overall crime in 2013 compared to the previous year is down in four of Coconut Grove’s five zones, with only the neighborhood’s northern end experiencing a 12 percent jump in overall crime, mainly due to a surge in larceny.
Some individual crime categories did see an increase — car thefts in the zone just below the north end and larcenies in a zone south of downtown Coconut Grove. Burglaries in Amandi’s South Grove neighborhood also increased by 12 from the year before, a 67 percent jump. There was only one homicide in all of Coconut Grove in 2013. According to figures supplied by Orosa, 2012 was the only year in the past five to experience an overall crime jump from the year before. Overall crime was up 4 percent that year.
“It surprised me a little we had so many people at City Hall,” said the chief. Still, he promised two officers from a class that graduates Friday will begin patrolling the Grove.
Confronted with the numbers this week, Amandi paused, then said there was a sense in the Grove that residents have to be tolerant of certain types of crime, like stolen bikes or property. “I think that mentality needs to change,” he said, adding that the number of officers stationed in the Grove should be in proportion to the tax base.
Sarnoff has argued for more than a year that the city should hire another 100 officers, or more. He says Miami comes in well behind other cities when comparing police-to-population percentages. This year the city failed to hire 50 budgeted-for officers.
Sarnoff questioned Orosa’s numbers. “I’ve always been suspect of crime stats,” he said, adding that many crimes, like bike thefts, go unreported, and that certain commanders may give instructions to officers to not make arrests for less serious crimes.
“It keeps numbers low so they look good,” said Sarnoff. “Or it keeps cops on the street waiting for what they consider a significant crime.”
Redirecting the budget money may also get the support of Commissioner Francis Suarez, who also wants more police hired. The city’s three other commissioners haven’t been as vocal about the issue. The five commissioners must set the property-tax rate before midnight Sept. 30.
Other than the police issue, there are few contentious points in the mayor’s 2014 spending plan.
The city’s finances are in better shape than at any time since Regalado became mayor in 2009. It’s the first year since before Regalado was elected that the city won’t have to cut services, freeze salaries or renegotiate union contracts to balance its books.
Regalado’s plan includes money to hire 25 new officers, and includes $550,000 from the general fund to maintain social services that are losing federal funding. The budgets of city offices and departments will remain essentially flat thanks to increased property values, attrition, savings from a recycling program and a fee charged to developers for street closures.
The plan also includes adding millions to the city’s reserves to bring it up to $57 million. The plan increases the police department’s budget by $9 million, to $167.3 million, and keeps the fire department’s budget relatively intact at $99.6 million.
If approved as proposed, the city’s 2014 budget would lower the property tax rate from $8.47 for every $1,000 of taxable property, to $8.43. That means an $8 savings for the owner of a $200,000 home with no homestead exemption.
The mayor called it “the best budget in the past 10 years.”