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Hialeah firefighters union leader, ex-mayor criticize city budget for typos

Hialeah’s finance director, Inés Beecher, acknowledged that the city council approved the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget with “minor” errors, which she said would be immediately corrected.

Beecher, who assumed the finance position in February, said most of the errors are typos that do not alter the fundamental budget numbers.

“In a budget of more than 150 pages, there are only seven pages with errors, which are small,” Beecher said. “This is something that happens in other cities and can be resolved in a second reading.”

The more-than-300-page budget breaks down the finances of Hialeah’s 17 city departments and 14 divisions.

The errors were detected when the vice president of the firefighters’ union, Eric Johnson, alerted the council to them in a special session on Sept. 9.

Johnson mentioned the errors in the segment for comments from the public, minutes after the council voted unanimously in favor of the budget. That was the only moment in which the public was allowed to comment on the city budget, the union leader said.

“I have legitimate concerns when no member of the council has any comment or questions about a $253 million budget,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t look good for the city of Hialeah that an employee finds basic errors.”

Beecher, an auditor who worked for Miami-Dade County for three decades, explained that after the special session she met with Johnson to know in detail the errors he mentioned. On Friday afternoon she was working on correcting what she called minor errors.

On Thursday, Mayor Carlos Hernández briefly told El Nuevo Herald that the criticisms were politically motivated.

But former mayor Raúl Martínez said that during a basic review of the budget he detected almost 20 errors that ranged from executive salaries in several departments that did not match the breakdown reports to thousands of dollars that did not coincide with the figure for employees’ salaries.

Martínez cited as an example the case of the city clerk’s office, whose account number 120, referring to civil service employees, shows a total of $57,662 in the summary of salary allocations. However, two pages later, the same account 120 shows $89,765. In other words, a difference of $32,103.

“There can be no errors in math,” Martínez said. “These can’t be errors in transcribing numbers, but central errors of how the budget was put together. They needed to balance it and threw numbers everywhere. That’s a lack of transparency.”

About that specific case, Beecher explained that the $32,103 corresponded to a salary figure that was transferred to the Department of Acquisitions.

Martínez says that the situation reveals that council members do not analyze a fundamental document like the city budget before approving it. Given the detected errors, Martínez said, the budget should go back to the council for a new first-reading vote.

Beecher said that the Miami-Dade County has had similar situations and the detected errors have been corrected on second reading.

City Attorney William Grodnick said that it was not necessary for the budget to go back to a first reading. He insisted that the errors will be corrected and the document will be ready for a final debate in a second hearing scheduled for Friday.

“This is a very clear and responsible budget,” Grodnick said. “No critical changes have been made here; what is being presented is a document with requirements exposing more detailed reports and comparisons with other years, making it more transparent.”

Another fundamental issue for Martínez is that the City of Hialeah has been publicizing that it has kept the same millage rate to avoid raising property taxes, but the budget reveals increases rates for water service.

Grodnick said that those increases are due to commitments made to the county, among them the scheduled payment of a water plant in a zone annexed in West Hialeah. Its construction cost was $110 million, half of which funded by the county and the other half by Hialeah.

Grodnick said that the urban development in that annexed zone has been accomplished thanks to prior basic infrastructure like the water plant.

Grodnick also criticized Johnson for questioning the budget when he personally refuses to participate in negotiations to achieve concessions of about $5 million in contributions for pensions.

Johnson responded that the union has a negotiating team that sat down from day one to discuss the concessions in good faith “with the interests of Hialeah residents in mind.”

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