Near the end of Miami’s first budget hearing two weeks ago, long after most people had cleared the chamber, Javier Ortiz stood before commissioners with a plan to boost sagging morale in his department, and to stop employees from abandoning ship to take jobs with other cities.
The president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police said if Acting City Manager Daniel Alfonso redirected $6.5 million from somewhere in the mayor’s proposed budget to the police department, the city could bump every police officer’s pay by $5,000, making paychecks more in line with other local South Florida agencies.
“Let’s do something,” Ortiz implored.
Standing nearby was Fernand Amandi, a Grove resident and well-known pollster, who wanted the money spent instead on hiring more police officers because of a rash of recent burglaries in his South Coconut Grove neighborhood.
“We’re demanding $10 million for 100 extra officers,” Amandi told the commission, his young son cradled in his arms.
This much is clear: After five years of salary and benefit cuts to help cover budget shortfalls, Miami police officers are underpaid — and the department is understaffed.
The struggle between hiring more officers versus restoring lost benefits is the lone major stumbling block for commissioners as they navigate through Thursday’s second and final budget hearing, attempting to pass the city’s $524-million 2014 spending plan.
As the clock ticked closer to 11 p.m. during the hearing two weeks ago, Mayor Tomás Regalado, who proposed the budget to the five-member commission, sauntered to the podium.
“We’ve been hearing you,” said the mayor. “I think if you give him [Alfonso] and his team some days, I think he can come up with something.”
Earlier that evening, Alfonso, a budget expert hired away from Miami-Dade County two years ago to put the city’s financial house in order, warned of the difficulty of moving money around in the bare-bones 2014 budget plan.
A week later, Alfonso said he and staffers were busy trying to identify options for redistributing the city’s operational funds — but the outlook remained bleak: Important city functions like filling potholes and clearing lots could be eliminated, he warned. Alfonso, also the city’s budget director, wouldn’t rule out personnel cuts.
“Seeing that approximately 75 percent of the city’s budget is personnel, any major changes to the budget would likely result in personnel reduction,” he said.
Despite the budget woes, it’s clear that after years of cuts to paychecks and benefits, Miami officers need to see a light at the end of the tunnel to keep them in the city.
The starting salary for a new officer in Miami — the largest municipal force in Miami-Dade — who goes through the police academy is $45,929. That pay is lower than most other agencies in Miami-Dade, and well below starting salaries for officers in Miami Beach, Aventura, and even Bay Harbor Islands and Pinecrest, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement figures for 2012.
Most police agencies in Broward County have higher starting salaries than Miami. Over the past four years Miami salaries have been repeatedly slashed and a host of benefits, including bonuses for higher education and for added duties like joining the SWAT team, have been eliminated.