Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Not-so-creative tax burdens to come


OUR OPINION: Miami-Dade County budget remains unsustainable without major changes in the future

The past five years have been grueling for local and state governments scrambling to maintain services while not adding to the burden on citizens of increased taxes during difficult economic times.

For Miami-Dade County government, the overspending and lavish union contracts during previous administrations put a particularly harsh light on the future during this budget season.

After tough months going over the 2014 budget to ensure that it was balanced, commissioners last week finally sealed the deal, but it’s not a forward-thinking budget.

Once again it uses “creative financing” to obfuscate the harsh reality of a cash-strapped county just barely getting out of the red. And, worse, most commissioners didn’t even get to make the final call on an override of Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s veto of a previously narrowly approved proposal to increase sanitation workers’ pay.

Stealth override

With only seven of the 13 commissioners present on Tuesday, the board voted 5-2 for the override, which means sanitation workers, whose department budget comes from fees and not property tax revenue, will get 5 percent more in pay instead of having that money contribute toward the county’s healthcare plan. It also means that workers at Miami International Airport, who also operate under a separate budget based on fees not general revenue, qualify for the increase because their union contract requires matching benefits if other unions qualify. Another “creative” move.

Restoring sanitation workers’ pay will cost about $1.1 million from the public works and waste management department’s $577 million budget for next year. It will cost the aviation department about $1.7 million from its nearly $900 million budget.

This costly move sets up an “us versus them” dynamic as the mayor enters negotiations with seven other unions to keep the 5 percent contribution in place for another year until more property tax revenue can cover the expense. Unions accepted the 5 percent fee negotiated by former Mayor Carlos Alvarez’s administration instead of a pay cut, as a way to ensure their base pay remained high for pension calculations — another creative financing tactic.

Raid on reserves

Then there was the commission’s recent raid of a reserve fund for the public library system.

After the mayor reworked the numbers to ensure all libraries would remain open, albeit with reduced hours, commissioners came back and decided raiding one-time reserves to keep the same system operating would be just dandy. So in the 2015 budget that will be decided next year, the library system, which depends on a separate library property tax for mostly unincorporated areas, will be in the hole by $20 million to keep the status quo.

The task force that already was examining how to change the funding structure to ensure the library system’s viability now has a major challenge to find an equitable way to fund libraries in the future.

The county’s nearly 26,000 workers have had a tough time of it, no question. But so, too, have most taxpaying residents of Miami-Dade, where almost one in four live in poverty. That’s the challenge our community faces.

The free ride is over, and political games of “creative financing” only pile on an unsustainable system.

Follow the Herald Editorial Board on Twitter @heraldoped.

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