For activists, first Miami-Dade budget hearing will be last chance to ask commission for tax-rate hike

09/09/2013 7:26 PM

09/09/2013 7:56 PM

Faced with the likely prospect of drastically reduced library hours, the elimination of three fire trucks and the layoffs of 228 librarians and firefighters, furious community advocates are expected to arrive in droves to County Hall on Tuesday to protest Miami-Dade’s proposed 2013-14 budget.

The first public hearing on Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s spending plan will mark the last chance for activists to ask county commissioners to change their minds about keeping next year’s property-tax rate flat, which would result in the deep cuts to the library and fire-rescue departments.

While the commission won’t sign off on the final version of the budget until after a second hearing on Sept. 19, it must decide Tuesday if it wants to make a last-minute reversal and raise the tax rate to maintain existing services.

A tax-rate hike this late in the year — the new budget year begins Oct. 1 — would be an unusual step, allowed under Florida law but rarely employed by municipal governments, which almost always settle on their tax rates in July.

“It’s not impossible to do, but it is, from what I can tell, unprecedented as far as this county is concerned,” said Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera, whose office would have to reissue tax notices to nearly 1 million property owners, at a cost of about $700,000. Final budget approval would be delayed by a month.

In practice, government administrators advise elected leaders they must decide on the tax rate in July, so property owners can be notified of their likely bills before the beginning of the new fiscal year. Only the city of North Miami Beach this year had to mail a second notice — not because city council members changed the tax rate, but because the city made a mistake in calculating a portion of it, Lopez-Cantera said.

But residents and county employees, worried about shorter hours and fewer staffers at libraries, and fewer trucks and personnel at fire stations, have argued that Miami-Dade commissioners did not have enough time to consider the consequences of keeping the tax rate flat. Gimenez, after all, didn’t make that recommendation until a day before the commission vote.

“Give us the summer to hear from the citizens,” Rowan Taylor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1403 union, asked commissioners in July.

The mayor had initially proposed hiking tax rates not only to keep the library and fire-rescue departments whole but also to fully fund an animal-welfare plan to stop killing cats and dogs at the county shelter. His July 9 announcement drew so much political backlash that Gimenez, who was elected after former Mayor Carlos Alvarez was ousted by voters frustrated over a tax-rate hike, backed away from the animal-care funding a day later, and dropped the tax hike completely by July 15.

The next day, commissioners voted 8-4 in favor of keeping the tax-rate steady, aware that the resulting worst-case scenario could involve shuttering 22 of the county’s 49 public libraries, doing away with six of 139 fire-rescue trucks and laying off 370 workers.

Those numbers have since changed significantly, with all libraries remaining open — for much shorter hours — and three of the six trucks saved. The layoffs have shrunk to 169 of a total of 461 library workers and 59 of 2,060 firefighters. Miami-Dade has applied for a federal grant to fund the trucks and firefighter positions.

Yet the reduced cuts have done little to temper the anger of activists who say commissioners did not give the public enough of a chance to weigh in, given the one-day notice of the flat rate. They have even enlisted the help of former County Manager George Burgess, who said he has received inquiries about the complicated, $4.4 billion Miami-Dade operating budget.

“If people ask me questions, I answer them,” said Burgess, who now works for the legal and lobbying firm Becker & Poliakoff. “I certainly feel for them.”

Last week, Pets’ Voice, the Pets’ Trust political arm, and the Miami Economic Sustainability Alliance, a pro-labor union group, filed a petition to begin a recall drive against Lynda Bell, one of the commissioners who favored the flat rate. The groups’ leaders, saying the timing of the recall drive was intended to put pressure on the board leading up to Tuesday’s hearing, have threatened to target additional commissioners.

Advocates have called and emailed the mayor and commissioners in force asking for a tax-rate increase — chiefly for libraries and animal services, with numerous but fewer requests about fire rescue, according to the offices of the mayor and four of 13 commissioners who responded to a Miami Herald public records request Monday. Gimenez has said he would likely veto any tax hike.

About 90 percent of the nearly 4,000 calls and emails into Gimenez’s office have asked for an increase or for no cuts, his office said, noting that staffers did not track how many communications came from the same person more than once.

The mayor has pointedly said he saw the same familiar activists’ and employees’ faces at five town-hall style meetings he held on the budget — a stance that drew jeers at one of the town halls, where Gimenez’s comments were videotaped and disseminated online.

“Ma’am, what I have seen for now the fifth [time] is frankly a lot of the same people that may not represent the 2.5 million people of Miami-Dade County,” he tells a resident in the clip. “There are a lot of people that don’t come here because, frankly, they’re OK with what we’re doing.”

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