Miami-Dade County would dip into money for the fire department in order to lessen cutbacks at libraries as part of a larger budget plan currently designed to eliminate about 700 government jobs countywide.
The new details from Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s draft budget proposal emerged during a Wednesday finance hearing before county commissioners, whose votes are needed to approve taxes and fees as well as how Miami-Dade spends about $6 billion a year. The day-long event captured the bruising debate ahead, as county-funded charities, labor unions and commissioners themselves objected to a range of spending cuts designed to avoid property-tax increases.
“We’ve been asked to do more with less each year,’’ JL Demps Jr., president of the Greater Goulds Optimist Club, told commissioners. The Goulds group is listed as receiving $65,000 in county grants this year under a $20 million program Gimenez wants to cut by 10 percent. “We ask that you have a heart,’’ Demps said.
Leaders of non-profits occupied a majority of the seats in the nearly full commission chambers, and dozens spoke to urge commissioners not to touch the county’s funding package for “community-based organizations.”
Among the speakers was Kristian Chima, 24, a local “ambassador” for Best Buddies, which receives about $100,000 from Miami-Dade, according to a CBO funding list issued by the county’s Finance Department.
“There was a time in high school when I didn’t have any friends, and was scared to speak in front of people,’’ Chima told commissioners before a crowd topping 200. “All of that changed thanks to Best Buddies.”
Commissioner Dennis Moss sent a letter to fellow non-profit leaders last week, asking them to attend Wednesday’s hearing and counter the impression “that the county is wasting money funding your groups.” Moss runs the Richmond Perrine Optimist Club, which is budgeted to receive about $270,000 from the CBO program this year. (Moss said he no longer draws a salary from the club, given its financial difficulties; the non-profit’s latest tax records show he wasn’t paid for his job as executive director.)
Libraries started the budget season facing the steepest potential cut among county departments, with the special property tax that funds the system generating just $30 million of the $50 million libraries are set to spend this year. Cash reserves covering the gap are expected to be exhausted by the time the new budget year begins Oct. 1.
Gimenez plans to propose a slight increase in the library tax this year, accompanied by matching decreases to the countywide property tax and a property tax earmarked for the county’s fire and rescue services. The shift would generate enough money for a $45 million library budget, which would preserve branch hours but result in about 90 job cuts, according to preliminary estimates.
The tax-shift plan drew criticism Wednesday. The county’s marine rescue squad is not using new boats for a lack of funds, and the fire department depends on $6 million in federal grant dollars to pay about 60 employees. “If we’re contemplating a cut in other areas in order to help libraries, I’m not convinced,’’ said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the Finance Committee, which held the hearing.
Al Cruz, leader of the fire-department union, said spare money from the fire tax should go toward reversing savings from prior years. “Let’s bring back what we already lost.”
The tax-shift Gimenez wants would generate about $12 million extra for the library system, and take the same amount of money out of revenue pools generated by the countywide and fire taxes. While all property owners pay the countywide tax, the library and fire taxes don’t cover the entire county.
Gimenez plans to unveil his full budget early next month, and his aides expect the numbers presented Wednesday to change by then. When the budget process began earlier this year, the mayor’s staff estimated there was a $208 million gap between expected tax revenue and the money needed to maintain current county services and staffing. Thanks to preliminary cuts, better-than-expected property values, and decisions to defer maintenance and purchases, budget chief Jennifer Moon said Wednesday that gap had narrowed to $75 million.
She estimated Miami-Dade would need to eliminate 700 positions to balance the budget, though that number is likely to change. Of those, 250 would come from the police department, home to the largest payroll in county government, with labor costs at almost $470 million this year. Last week, the projected job-cut figure in police was 450, but Moon said the new estimate was no cause to celebrate. “It’s been very difficult to get to this point,’’ she told commissioners. “It’s very hard for all of us to recommend reductions.”
The proposed Gimenez staffing cuts hinge on his pledge not to proposed a property-tax increase this year and the assumption that Miami-Dade labor unions won’t agree to concessions before the new budget takes effect Oct. 1. Moon said about 2,800 positions have been eliminated in the three years since Gimenez took office in 2011, which would make a reduction of 700 payroll slots a below-average cut.
This year’s library funding gap came thanks largely to back-to-back cuts in the library tax in 2010 and 2011 under the mayorships of Carlos Alvarez and Gimenez, who took office in 2011 after voters recalled Alvarez.
Library advocates want commissioners to ignore Gimenez’s budget plan and impose a high enough library tax to generate $64 million for the system. The current library tax costs about $17 for every $100,000 of a property’s assessed value, and a $64 million budget would require a library tax costing about $33 for every $100,000.
Terry Murphy, a union consultant pushing for more library dollars, urged commissioners to increase property taxes outright rather than rely in the growth of real estate values to keep up with government costs.
“We’re not allowing ourselves to make the hard decisions on millage rates,’’ he said, using a term for property-tax rates. “Allowing the property appraiser to determine the service levels of this community is putting everyone at risk.”