Animal lovers, reading advocates and angry firefighters turned out in large numbers Tuesday night at the North Dade Branch Library to argue against proposed cuts in the upcoming county budget, in the first of a series of town hall meetings held by Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
The mayor’s 2013-2014 budget, which must be approved by county commissioners at the end of September, calls for keeping the property tax rate flat. But to do so, the mayor says, fire rescue is looking at losing three fire trucks and dozens of firefighters, and 14 of the county’s 49 libraries must close, meaning the loss of about 250 more jobs.
The flat tax rate also means despite a public non-binding referendum question on whether voters would approve taxing themselves to pay for a program to end the county’s animal overpopulation problem, the program won’t get the funding it needs. Last fall, nearly 500,000 voters, almost 65 percent of those who cast ballots, voted in favor of the tax that would have cost the typical homeowner about $20 a year. The money would have paid for mass sterilization programs and responsible pet-ownership education.
As he did last year, Gimenez decided to hold the meetings to give residents a chance to speak out and suggest alternative ideas. Some residents carried signs that read “United We Stand, Divided We Lose,” with pictures of firefighters, libraries and animals underneath. Firefighters wore their bright yellow “Metro-Dade Firefighters” T-shirts.
The mayor’s goal, he told the overflowing raucous crowd of well over 200, was “getting the county back on a sustainable path.”
Gimenez had originally proposed a tax increase that would have saved most of the proposed cuts, but quickly backed off that decision, he said, when the plan received little support from the public and commissioners.
The evening started with Gimenez explaining why he chose the flat tax. He was followed by Jennifer Moon, director of the county’s Office of Strategic Business Management, who explained the budget in a slide show presentation.
Then came the questions and statements, with Gimenez and staff answering some, agreeing with others, and sometimes just listening.
Florida International University professor Linnea Pearson said she taught Trayvon Martin’s brother Jahvaris Fulton last year in a class. She wondered if a library in a North Dade strip mall near the California Club could be saved and named after the teen shot and killed in Central Florida by George Zimmerman. Martin, she explained, was visiting his father because he had been suspended from school.
“One of my concerns is when a child is on suspension, they have nowhere to go,” said Pearson.
Gimenez said the goal was to keep open all the libraries on county-owned property like the North Dade Branch, and that the county was currently trying to renegotiate its lease near the California Club.
When the mayor explained how the county was working on an app that would inform the public which libraries would be open, Marilyn Lieberman, who described herself as a community activist, piped in, saying, “unfortunately with fewer libraries it will take people two or three buses to get there.”
Terry Murphy, a consultant who used to be chief of staff for former County Commissioner Natacha Seijas, blasted the administration for not building a mental health center the public voted to fund with $21 million in 2004. He noted how plans to build it were now delayed until 2020, and how the county was in the process of building more jail cells well before then.
“You don’t free up jail cells by building more jail cells.”
Gimenez had no response.
The testiest exchange of the evening may have come between the mayor and attorney Patricia Martinez, who told the mayor an app doesn’t replace a library, and questioned how the library’s budget had sunk by almost $30 million the past few years. Gimenez explained how when it had amassed a large surplus the library’s tax rate was lowered because “it wasn’t fair to tax the public.”
When the mayor explained that there is only a certain amount of money his administration can work with and that it has to live within those means, Martinez said, “I’m an educated attorney and I understand how the millage works.”
Several times Gimenez had to explain how the library and fire rescue have separate tax rates within the county’s massive $4.39 billion operating budget — and that funds outside those independent property tax rates can’t be used for libraries or fire rescue.
That didn’t matter much to Erica Brown, a Northwestern High and University of Florida graduate who is getting a master’s in business administration at Nova Southeastern University.
“The public library system I have the educational level I have,” she said. “A world without knowledge is a very dangerous place.”