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Coral Gables

Coral Gables boosts fire fee and considers adding members to pension board

 
 
TAKING THE LEED: The Coral Gables Commission honored the Coral Gables Museum for achieving LEED environmental certification at a commission meeting Thursday morning, Sept. 12. Pictured left-right: Architect Jorge Hernandez, Commissioner Vince Lago (rear left), museum director Christine Rupp, Mayor Jim Cason (center), benefactor Robert Fewell and attorney Laura Russo.
TAKING THE LEED: The Coral Gables Commission honored the Coral Gables Museum for achieving LEED environmental certification at a commission meeting Thursday morning, Sept. 12. Pictured left-right: Architect Jorge Hernandez, Commissioner Vince Lago (rear left), museum director Christine Rupp, Mayor Jim Cason (center), benefactor Robert Fewell and attorney Laura Russo.
HOWARD COHEN / Miami Herald Staff

hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

Coral Gables plans to increase its annual fire fee from $50 to $70 on Oct. 1 — a 40 percent increase — a move that angered a pair of residents who spoke out at a public hearing.

“It is an appropriate means,” City Manager Pat Salerno said at a Thursday morning commission meeting. “This is $1.66 a month increase, the cost of a medium McFlurry,” he said, referring to the popular McDonald’s frozen dessert.

Commissioner Pat Keon made a case for the fee. “It’s not a tax. A fee goes to support an item or the area the fee was imposed for. This goes directly to the fire budget, the operating budget of the fire department. What this does is it frees up other dollars that could be used in other areas of the city. This gave us the opportunity to hire seven additional police officers to patrol our city.”

But resident Peter Kouchalakos likened the move as “a mechanism robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “Apples and oranges shouldn’t be mixed. It is a tax and should be put before the voters. This is no reflection on the men and women that serve as firefighters but then when does this stop? We are looking at a 40 percent bump in this assessment.”

Resident Valeria Bauwens wanted to know how the money would be used.The fee, adopted in Oct. 2009, raised $1.98 million this year and the new fee will generate an additional $800,000 for the coming fiscal year which begins Oct. 1.

“So some money is relieved by this fee so when I pay taxes that would normally pay for fire this fee is to hire policemen? So the assessment is covering the fire department but in other words is hiding an expense? This is nothing against the fire department but how do you calculate this? This is fishy,” Bauwens said.

Salerno said the fee is reviewed annually. Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk Jr. supported the increase as well. “We are reducing millage and our reserves are boosted. We’ve been trying to be prudent with taxpayers’ money. Pat Keon said it very well. We are freeing up money to hire these additional police officers and ad valorem taxes are less than last year.”

The fire protection assessment resolution passed unanimously.

“It is legal as long as the fire fee is being used for fire,” City Attorney Craig Leen said.

Other business

On a second reading, the commission agreed in a 4-0 vote to make a minor change in its zoning regulations to allow Pi Kappa Alpha to build a new fraternity house at Mataro Avenue and San Amaro Drive with its front entrance on San Amaro. The site belongs to the University of Miami. Commissioner Vince Lago abstained from voting because he is a project executive with one of the companies bidding for the work, BDI Construction Co.

The commission also entertained two ordinances on first reading. In the first, the five-member commission implemented pension changes it made last week at an impasse hearing. General employees will now pay 17 percent toward their pension plan. The approximately 290 city employees had been paying 20.26 percent of their salaries toward their pension. The union had requested a 12 percent contribution while the city’s position was 18.26 percent. The effective date is Sept. 30.

In addition, the commission voted to increase the nine-member pension board to 13 individuals. The four newcomers would be in management positions. Two would be appointed by the city manager while the other two would be commission appointees.

Attorneys representing the unions opposed the move, arguing the larger board would put the balance of power in the city’s hands.

“Sometimes decisions may not be in the best interest of the city and there is a fear that with two appointed by the city manager there will be a conflict of interest, they will serve at the will of the city manager,” said attorney Osnat Rind, representing the police and non-uniformed union employees.

Charles Girtman, a Coral Gables resident, argued in favor of the increase. “We need more information on that board and need people who come in here and know what finances are. I’m not a lawyer but I do know as long as taxpayers’ money is being used, then taxpayers should be represented in an effective manner.”

Attorney James Linn, representing Coral Gables on pension issues, disagreed with Rind and the opposition. “There’s no inherent conflict of interest. The fact this board has not had any management representatives on it is something this ordinance is seeking to address and to add balance to the composition of the board.”

The commission voted unanimously to pass the ordinance on first reading but could defer a second reading until it receives a letter from the Department of Retirement clarifying its legal position to change the composition of the board.

The city also presented LEED certification certificates to Coral Gables Museum architect Jorge Hernandez and benefactor Robert Fewell.

Achieving certification for the porous, coral stone building was difficult, director Christine Rupp said.

“This museum is so well loved by its citizens, that’s why this LEED certification is important and sends a clear message. This is the first historic preservation building with LEED,” Hernandez said.

“This is a green day, that’s a good name for this day,” said Fewell, sporting a shamrock green jacket.

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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