Six weeks ago, the Board of County Commissioners overwhelmingly approved my proposed budget for fiscal 2013-2014 that kept millage rates the same as last year. While this required us to make some difficult decisions in the face of numerous financial challenges, the board agreed with me that our residents could not afford a tax increase.
When I first took office, I made a pledge to our community to protect our future. We need a government that is sustainable, one that takes an honest long-term view when it comes to our budget. Miami-Dade County continues to face budgetary challenges. In fact, just a few days ago, I convened the Mayor’s Task Force for the Public Library System to address the financial challenges facing our libraries so that they not only survive, but evolve and thrive, in the years to come.
I have been acutely cognizant of the economic hardships facing our community, which is why since I have been mayor the property tax rate is 12 percent lower than before I took office. We reduced the number of county departments to 25 and trimmed our operating budget by more than $300 million. We have also worked hard to make sure that the services vital to our 2.5 million residents remain in place and that our budget reflects our community’s shared priorities. We continue to make sure that vulnerable seniors get nutritious meals; our children have quality after-school programs at parks; police and fire services remain intact; our environment is protected; our drinking water remains among the best in the country.
One of the key components of our county budget is the yearlong continuation of the employees’ 5 percent contribution to the overall cost of healthcare. This concession, in place since 2010, by all of the county employee labor unions is set to automatically expire Jan.1, 2014. Knowing this, I made it very clear during my six budget town hall meetings, the board’s two budget hearings, and in all of my meetings with commissioners that our proposed budget was based on our employees’ continued 5 percent contribution.
My administration has been negotiating with the unions to keep this 5-percent contribution in place to avoid any impacts to residents’ service and prevent employee layoffs. Unfortunately, the unions are insisting that this contribution end so that employees’ salaries are increased. This impasse in negotiations will be decided by commissioners in the coming weeks.
The fiscal impact of this issue on our current budget is daunting. In our property tax-supported functions, which include general fund, fire and library services, the gap that will be created if the 5 percent is given to employees is over $27 million just for the nine remaining months of the fiscal year. I am not supportive of higher taxes, nor is there the ability to raise taxes at this point. We would be forced to look at service cuts and layoffs to balance the budget.
I am also strongly opposed to raiding our reserves. First and foremost, these salary increases would be a recurring cost, while reserves are a one-time source. This would mean that next year’s budget would begin with a $36-million gap, which is the value of the 5-percent contribution for 12 months. Moreover, our reserves are not at levels they should be and our focus should instead be on increasing them. I encourage all of you to continue your involvement in these issues by visiting our website: http://www.miamidade.gov/mayor.
I acknowledge the hard work and effort of our county employees; however, now is not the right time to give back the 5 percent contribution. Our economy, though improving, continues to be fragile and we cannot risk making decisions that could hamper our recovery. Instead, as public servants we should continue to lead by example.
As mayor my goal is, and has always been, to provide you with a government that is built on transparency, efficiency and fiscal responsibility — a government that balances the needs of our residents and what they can afford to pay.
Carlos Gimenez is the mayor of Miami-Dade County.