Transit cuts almost threw Miami-Dade’s budget process into a ditch this week as county commissioners briefly voted to reject Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed $7.4 billion spending plan for 2018.
In an early-morning vote Wednesday, commissioners rejected the countywide budget 7-6, a moment so rare in county government that Miami-Dade lawyers asked for a few minutes to figure out the next step.
“Mr. Chair, I don’t believe we can go to the next item,” said Geri Bonzon Keenan, the top deputy in the County Attorney Office. “I think another motion would be needed to approve this.”
Keenan said commissioners needed to give preliminary approval to a budget in some form in order to be ready for a final vote next week. While rewriting Gimenez’s proposed budget on the fly was an option, commissioners were spared that exercise when Jean Monestime agreed to switch his No vote to a Yes. That allowed the budget to survive for a showdown vote after the county’s final budget hearing, to be held on Sept. 28 at 5 p.m.
While Monestime gave Gimenez relief, the commissioner was one of the leading critics of the roughly $30 million in transit cuts the mayor proposed for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. Most of the saved money comes from service cuts for bus routes and Metrorail. The reductions come a year after Gimenez ran reelection ads touting more rail lines and championed an effort to expand transit countywide known as the “SMART Plan.”
“Mr. Mayor, I know you are committed to mass transit,” Monestime said before the vote, “but I am afraid some of us may lose faith in that commitment based on the cuts we are discussing tonight.”
Though he offered upbeat budget presentations in recent years, Gimenez said downturns in sales-tax collections and other pockets of softness in the local economy left Miami-Dade with a daunting financial picture for 2018. In July commissioners endorsed the mayor’s flat rates for property taxes, extending the taxation levels more or less in place since the fall of 2011, when the newly elected Gimenez fulfilled a campaign promise to lower taxes.
“When resources are limited, difficult decisions must be made,” Gimenez said Tuesday. “Development of this budget has been challenging.”
The 2018 budget includes a hiring freeze across the bureaucracy, though public-safety positions are exempt, and extends cost-saving measures in parks that even include managers reduced to part time.
Transit took the biggest hit, since it relies on a special half-percent sales tax to subsidize operations. A nationwide decline in transit ridership hurt revenues even more. The budget lowers Metrorail funding by 6 percent, with $4.5 million in reduced service that includes longer waits for trains and reduced hours. Miami-Dade’s bus system faces an 8 percent cut, with $19 million taken out of the 2017 budget through service cuts and outsourcing of some of the least popular routes. Most of the cuts have already taken effect, but some changes in bus routes will arrive this fall.
The proposed cuts attracted a string of pleas from residents who want commissioners to find money to restore the money.
Alan Ojeda, a Miami developer who heads the transportation committee for the city’s Downtown Development Authority, said he scrapped his prepared remarks in order to relate a story of getting to the budget hearing at the Stephen Clark Government Center. He took the Metromover to the county headquarters, only to find the doors weren’t operating properly.
“We need to act like a global city. Public transit is a must,” he said. “Given what happened to me an hour ago … I beg you, please don’t cut any money.”
When the mayor’s budget fell one vote short, Commissioner Xavier Suarez used the moment to propose a drastic fix: tap the county’s emergency reserves to fill the transit gap and make the administration scramble to find replacement dollars before next Thursday’s vote. A $30 million draw would wipe out most of the county’s $48 million rainy-day fund, and administration officials say the revenue cushion is crucial to preserving favorable ratings from credit agencies that indirectly determine how much Miami-Dade must pay to borrow money.
The Suarez scenario never came to fruition, given Monestime’s announcement of a switched vote, leading to a 7-6 passage. (Remaining on the official No side were commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan, Daniella Levine Cava, Joe Martinez, and Suarez.)
Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who labeled his vote as a “Yes for now,” grilled administration officials on the numbers behind the transit cuts. He signaled the administration would lose his vote if it couldn’t conjure new dollars for transit before next week’s final vote.
“I think there is a clear message being sent to the administration that we’re not satisfied with the issue of transportation,” he said.
With Gimenez’s budget team insisting there are no spare dollars for transit, the administration could offer commissioners options for cuts elsewhere to shift dollars to Metrorail or the bus system. The administration has filled past budget holes with rosier projections for year-end surplus dollars or other accounting tactics that have temporarily freed up more money.
In a statement, Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández suggested that talks will continue in the run-up to the Sept. 28 vote.
“Mayor Gimenez and his administration will work to address the concerns commissioners expressed regarding proposed funding for Miami-Dade Transportation,” he said.