City leaders gave initial approval Thursday night to one of the least controversial budgets in Miami in the past few years, but still struggled late into the night with an emotional crowd that demanded the hiring of 100 new police officers, and with cops requesting the restoration of benefits lost to prior budget cuts.
The $524 million operating budget proposed by Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado for 2014 is the first since he took office in 2009 that doesn’t cut services, freeze or slash salaries, or require the renegotiation of union contracts. It includes not-yet-received grant money to hire 25 new police officers, bumps the city reserves up to $57 million and includes $550,000 from the general fund to maintain social services that lost federal funding.
For the first time in many years, because of increases in taxable property values, commissioners wrestled with how to spend the money, instead of what to cut.
“This proposed budget is not an exciting budget, but it’s a responsible budget. We’re coming out of difficult times and rebounding,” Regalado said.
The budget passed on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Frank Carollo, Michelle Spence-Jones and Wifredo “Willy” Gort in favor, and Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff and Commissioner Francis Suarez voting against.
Before ending the meeting moments before 11 p.m., the commission asked the city manager to report back in two weeks at the final budget hearing whether there’s a way to move $9 million around in the budget to pay for additional officers, increases in police salaries or both.
A second, final vote is scheduled for Sept. 26.
The budget hearing attracted a large group of Coconut Grove homeowners who filled much of the historic Dinner Key chamber and sided with Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff’s 18-month fight for more police to stave what they believe is escalating crime. They asked — and often demanded — that $10 million in the proposed budget be redirected to the police department for the hires.
On the other side of the chamber, dozens of police officers and their families called for the restoration of salary and benefits — lost the past five years to budget cuts — before any new officers are hired. Among the benefits lost: Tuition reimbursement and extra pay for hazardous duty such as serving on the SWAT team.
Officers with years of experience in Miami, earning some of the lowest salaries in South Florida after years of cuts, were decked out in bright yellow T-shirts that read, “You Can’t Hire 100 New MPD Cops If You Can’t Take Care Of The Ones Already Here.” Many said they were struggling with mortgages and were prepared to leave Miami for another force with higher pay.
“I’m tired of working off-duty to support my family. I want a better life for my family. If somebody offers me more money I’m going to go,” said Miami police supervisor Nestor Garcia.
Pay for certified officers begins at $48,765, considerably less than in Miami Beach and Miami Gardens, and less than any department in Broward County, said Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa.
Miami residents at the meeting said they want the cops to stay — and they want more of them.
Coconut Grove’s Fernand Amandi, a prominent pollster who has rallied neighbors to fight for more cops, cradled his young son in his arms while demanding the city hire 100 more officers.