Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is on the right track by insisting that voters get a say on any proposed tax hike. This is one issue that requires a test of public sentiment before taking any irreversible steps.
The mayor and county commissioners are rightly cautious about imposing taxes on a skeptical public. The Great Recession has been followed by the Puny Recovery. Many households still feel the pain, whether in the form of homes with a market value below the cost of the mortgage, or reduced family incomes. Or both.
Then, too, the current mayor and county commissioners have before them the grim reminder of former Mayor Carlos Alvarez, whose body is still figuratively twisting in the wind. Mr. Alvarez was recalled after pushing for an unwise tax increase that riled county voters and giving his staff salary hikes.
But times have changed, and so has the cast of characters. Both of those factors must be taken into account in deciding how the county should go forward.
Mayor Gimenez was elected after waging a campaign of fiscal responsibility and lower taxes, and he has worked hard to keep his promises.
His first budget reduced the property tax rate and reined in spending. He cut county departments from 42 to 25 and eliminated about 1,300 of the county’s more than 27,000 jobs. He has fought repeatedly with county union leaders to get concessions on wages and benefits in order to keep the budget in line. He imposed significant pay cuts on county staff, slashed his own salary in half and cut his office budget by 20 percent.
These measures were necessary to get the county back to a strong fiscal footing. They have allowed the mayor to create a platform of trust with the people of Miami-Dade County. Now he — and the voters — have to think about the future and the price the county has paid to keep costs in line with a tight budget during a period of fewer resources.
The county’s parks department lost more than 300 full-time positions and managed to do without some $20 million in deferred maintenance. Its subsidy from the general fund shrank by nearly $21 million. Now it faces more, significant spending cuts because a hotel-tax surplus that was used to shore up its budget is gone.
The plight of the county’s library system is emblematic of what has been lost as a result of the recession and the need to cut taxes. Mr. Gimenez’s original budget reduced the special property tax for libraries, resulting in a $20 million less per year than the amount previously generated. The system has managed the situation by using reserve funds from previous years, but even so it was obliged to get by with fewer workers, shorter hours and fewer book purchases. And now the reserve has been depleted.
All of this is to suggest that a strong case can be made for improved funding of libraries, parks and cultural institutions. They’ve been neglected long enough. These are not mere amenities that make urban life more attractive or convenient, but rather necessities that form vital components of any city that residents can be proud to call home.
Budgets that grow incrementally year after year as a matter of course are a thing of the past. Taxpayers won’t stand for it, nor should they. But when voters who want to see their community move forward are presented with credible reasons for a proposed increase, they may be disposed to agree. Mayor Gimenez and county commissioners should be prepared to make the case.