Relief from approval of Miami-Dade budget may not last

09/20/2013 5:52 PM

09/20/2013 5:53 PM

In the end, the $6.3 billion budget that will carry Miami-Dade County into the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 avoided causing much of the hurt residents had feared. But the relief might be only temporary.

Commissioners approved the 2013-14 budget after midnight Friday, hoping the county will qualify for a federal grant to avert firefighter layoffs and the elimination of fire trucks.

If the U.S. Department of Homeland Security fails to award the fire-rescue department the two-year, $5.9 million grant next month, the commission will have to weigh issuing pink slips to 59 of its 2,060 firefighters and shutting down three of 139 trucks or tapping emergency reserves to make the department whole.

“Everybody’s not happy with this,” Commissioner Dennis Moss conceded before the late-night budget vote, which came after firefighters and their supporters asked the board to reconsider axing services.

Moss called the budget a compromise “we can live with” after two months of heartburn over potential cuts. Last week, commissioners depleted the library department’s reserves to avert widespread layoffs and the reduction of library hours.

Next month, however, commissioners could face the difficult task of further raiding reserves — a move opposed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who says Miami-Dade’s rainy-day fund is short as it is — or signing off on the fire cuts. Those cuts could be steeper than have been suggested, since the fire department will be carrying additional personnel expenses it cannot afford into the new fiscal year.

The budget picture won’t get any rosier in 2014. Seven of 10 collective-bargaining units are expected to reach an impasse in January over a concession that requires employees to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs. The contribution, imposed almost four years ago, was scheduled to end Jan. 1, but Gimenez insists the county cannot afford to restore nearly 26,000 employees’ pay.

With commissioners earlier this week upholding their decision to restore the pay for sanitation and aviation workers, Gimenez on Thursday advised that doing the same for every other union could result in layoffs early next year.

“That’s not idle talk. That is reality,” he said. “I know that this hasn’t been an easy time for many of our employees, but a lot of our residents are struggling as well.”

But that issue took a back seat at the budget hearing that began Thursday and lasted more than seven hours, as more than 100 people took turns urging commissioners to fund — or defund — certain services. By flat property-tax rate for the coming year means the average Miami-Dade homeowner will pay slightly more in taxes due to a rise in property values countywide.

Commissioners found a way to keep the fire department’s venom-response unit intact by agreeing that the service is provided across the county, not just to areas that do not have city fire services. As a result, Miami-Dade will pay for most of the $641,000-a-year unit out of the county’s general fund.

The funding will come from another decision reached by commissioners late Thursday: to Sundo he county’s policy of complying with federal immigration authorities’ request to keep foreign nationals in detention longer than local police requires. That should save Miami-Dade about $600,000 a year, Gimenez said. Only about $350,000 of that will go toward the venom-response unit.

The budget includes a couple of significant fee hikes, including an 8 percent increase to water rates previously approved by commissioners. Additional increases are projected for the next four years.

Public-transit fares will go up to $2.25 from $2, following a previously approved commission measure linking ticket prices to the consumer price index.

Some areas will grow, including animal services and the police department, which is slated to hire four new classes of officers. An additional 27 sworn police officers could be hired if Miami-Dade is awarded a federal grant.

Around 12:40 a.m., the commission voted 11-1 for the budget, with Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez voting in favor.

Moss was absent from the vote, though he voted in favor of the tax rate and most other budget items that must be approved separately.

Commissioner Juan C. Zapata voted against. He said he found some line items unfair to residents who live in unincorporated neighborhoods outside of cities, and he criticized Gimenez for what Zapata called a lack of vision.

“The budget is the biggest policy statement we make,” Zapata said. “I look at this budget, and I’m hard-pressed to find the policy.”

Edmonson and Monestime opposed the elimination of the five-member countywide office of healthcare planning on the first day of the fiscal year, the same day as the new federal healthcare law takes effect. Gimenez said the cut was a “last resort” to fill in the budget gap, but the county will continue looking for ways to assist the public in navigating the new law.

“As mayor of Miami-Dade County, I occupy a non-partisan seat,” said Gimenez, a Republican, obliquely referring to criticism from the county’s Democratic Party about the elimination of the office.

For her part, Sosa touted commissioners’ move to allow residents to donate additional money to their favorite county services — in the unlikely event that they choose to contribute on top of their property taxes.

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