City of Miami

Feud between Miami, police union widens

 

crabin@MiamiHerald.com

On Tuesday, only an hour after the city’s chief financial officer said he had found enough money in the city’s proposed 2014 spending plan to hire an additional 10 cops, the police union president fired back, saying crime was up because officers are fleeing the city looking for higher pay and beefier benefits.

Two days before Miami’s final budget hearing, the battle over hiring more cops versus restoring lost benefits only intensified.

“We have to respond to the people. We will be able to show the police department is growing,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said while attending a graduation ceremony at the city’s police college Tuesday.

As the event was taking place, Fraternal Order of Police President Javier Ortiz was in front of a television camera outside the building.

A short while later he issued a one-page statement with this offering: “Retaining your current police force by resolving their benefits and being competitive to hire the best is the solution.”

The single remaining fight over the administration’s $524 million spending plan for 2014 is how to redistribute money to the police department and where it should be spent: Coconut Grove homeowners, concerned over an uptick in burglaries, want $10 million to hire 100 more cops. Officers, who have suffered from four years of salary and benefit cuts that in some cases lowered their overall compensation by 20 percent or more, want $6.5 million to restore some of the losses.

The fight has grown so intense that Ortiz, while fighting for restored benefits, helped produce Internet videos mocking the department and warning potential hires to stay away. Grove residents worried about crime — even though the overall crime rate in the Grove is down slightly from a year ago — have sent out frightening emails and have flooded City Hall’s chambers demanding more officers.

Two weeks ago during the city’s first budget hearing, chief financial officer and Acting City Manager Daniel Alfonso warned there wasn’t much to carve out of the bare-bones budget for either raises or new hires, and that any significant redirection of money could result in service or personnel cuts.

Miami police officers are at the lower end of the pay scale compared to other agencies in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The city is also well below the 1,144 officers it has budgeted for, and also has a lower police-to-residents ratio than many other U.S. cities of similar size. The city is also facing the loss of more than 250 officers in an early retirement program by 2017.

At the city’s first budget hearing, commissioners tentatively approved the spending plan on a split vote. They told Alfonso to find a way to redistribute money and return with a new plan Thursday. Commissioners Michelle Spence-Jones, Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Frank Carollo voted in favor of the budget. Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff and Francis Suarez voted against.

Sarnoff and Suarez want more cops; Spence-Jones and Gort said the way to entice new recruits is to restore lost benefits.

The budget vote, which must be ratified Thursday, means homeowners will pay a property tax rate of $8.43 for every $1,000 of property, a slight decrease from this year. That represents a savings of $8 for the owner of a $200,000 home without a homestead exemption. After four years of cuts, the proposed 2014 spending plan leaves most departments with budgets similar to a year ago

Tuesday, while attending the graduation ceremony downtown next to police headquarters, Alfonso said he has identified $2.44 million from various departments that could be redirected to hire 10 new officers without hurting services or personnel.

The money would come from several different sources, including $500,000 budgeted for a citywide runoff in November for the mayor’s seat; $500,000 from a risk-management insurance pool for accidents like slips and falls, and $470,000 from money the city was paid by Ultra Music Festival organizers and the television show Burn Notice that was sitting in a rainy-day fund.

Alfonso said he’s identified another $6.5 million the city could spend on policing, but warned he’s not recommending it because it would involve service cuts and the loss of personnel.

“We’re putting it out there as an option,” he said.

City administrators who pushed for the compensation cuts the past four years are also being blamed for the lack of hires in the department, which is still 40 officers short of the 1,144 Miami budgeted for this year.

To gain some public support, city leaders made a big deal out of Tuesday’s graduating class of 10, a normal occurrence that takes place about once every four months.

Yet what was meant to have the pomp and circumstance of a college graduation turned out instead to be a quiet, media-staged event

In an unusual move amid the budget standoff, Police Chief Manuel Orosa sent out blast emails and contacted the media, inviting the public to see the city’s newest graduating class. The event — with Orosa, Regalado, Alfonso and Commissioner Gort looking on — took place in a cavernous, theater-like auditorium that seats about 300.

The five civilians in attendance were far outnumbered by media.

As city brass spoke, Miami’s 10 newest officers sat on one end of the stage and 25 newly accepted applicants about to begin training sat on the other.

“Regardless of what you’ve heard through the media, there are many who want to be cops,” Regalado told the sparse crowd.

Ortiz thinks otherwise, noting that four officers left unexpectedly in the past moth.

“Today, under incredible pressure from the mayor, Chief Orosa had a press conference with new Miami police recruits as a backdrop attempting to portray that hiring isn’t an issue for the city of Miami,” said Ortiz. “After the press conference, a number of them told me that they have applied to Miami Beach and other police departments in order to make better pay and benefits. Can you blame them?”

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