Miami-Dade County

December 14, 2013

Miami-Dade mayor vetoes restoring workers’ pay, offers compromise bonus for low-paid employees

Mayor Carlos Gimenez blocked commissioners’ decision to end a contentious employee healthcare contribution. He also proposed a one-time bonus for the lowest-paid workers.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez struck down Saturday county commissioners’ decision to restore most workers’ pay, forcing a new vote Tuesday on the high-stakes issue.

His veto was expected. But the mayor also offered a potential compromise to commissioners determined to no longer require employees to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs.

Gimenez proposed giving one-time bonuses to some of the lowest-paid county workers: $1,500 to employees who make less than $40,000 a year and $1,000 to those who make between $40,000 and $50,000.

“I listened to the commission,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald, referring to the board’s concerns over workers suffering economic hardship. “This way we can give a little bit of relief to our lowest-paid employees and not break the bank.”

He emphasized that restoring all workers’ pay, as the commission voted to do, would be a greater benefit to those on the higher end of the pay scale. An employee making $100,000 a year would get $5,000 back, compared to one making $50,000, who would get $2,500.

Under the mayor’s bonus proposal, an employee making $45,000 a year who pays $2,250 toward the healthcare contribution would get a little less than half of that as a one-time payment. An employee making $20,000 whose contribution is $1,000 a year would get all of that back, plus $500.

Though labor unions and some commissioners have pointed to potential wasteful spending in the county budget, according to Gimenez there is not enough money in the spending plan to restore all employees’ pay. In a six-page veto message to commissioners, he enumerated cuts he might make if the commission overrides his veto.

Among them: cutting civilian police personnel, scaling back park mowing and maintenance, delaying facility repairs, reducing 311 telephone information hours and pushing back pothole fixes.

Gimenez also said he could lay off more than 100 employees from the county’s work force of nearly 26,000, likely from departments such as parks, police and public works that depend on the general fund and not on user fees. In addition, part-time workers’ hours could be slashed and service contracts with outside firms could get reworked or canceled.

And the mayor said he intends to continue requiring the 5 percent healthcare contribution from the about 2,000 non-union workers who fall under his purview.

“We’re in a hole, and I’m not going to continue to dig,” he said. Another 700 or so employees report to the commission.

Gimenez had until Sunday to sign the veto. In an unusual move, the clerk of the board came into County Hall to stamp the veto Saturday afternoon.

Employees have been making the healthcare contribution for more than three years to help the county during lean times. The concession was supposed to end this coming Jan. 1.

The $4.4 billion operating budget Gimenez proposed and commissioners adopted in September planned to keep taking the 5 percent from workers. Because no funds were set aside otherwise, commissioners’ decision 10 days ago to end the contribution would open a $56 million gap in this year’s budget and create an even bigger one for next year.

The Jackson Health System’s $1.1 billion operating budget would take an $18 million hit, though only $6 million in actual cuts would be required. The remaining $12 million would wipe out the public hospital’s budget surplus, which Jackson and county leaders have recently trumpeted.

Speaking at a monthly meeting of the board that runs Jackson, Chief Executive Carlos Migoya said Thursday that, in a “worst-case scenario,” the hospital would have to cut the equivalent of 240 full-time positions in order to eliminate the projected shortfall.

“It’s not necessarily layoffs,” he said, noting that administrators could reduce overtime, part-time staff and other expenses.

A representative from one of Jackson’s labor unions said cuts could come from streamlining operations, such as reducing the average patient’s length of stay to shrink overtime and the need for outside contractor nurses supplied through an agency.

Irene Lipof, a Jackson trustee nominated to the board by the unions, said administrators should have anticipated the restoration of workers’ pay as planned.

“Some people are surprised the county commission did vote the way they did,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised because there were two other groups that got the 5 percent back the month before.”

To fill the county budget hole, commissioners placed several restrictions on the mayor, including protecting public services and leaving most rainy-day reserves untouched. Gimenez wrote in his message that he agrees with shielding the reserves but may not be able to avoid affecting some services.

“It is within our collective ability to avoid detrimental cuts,” he wrote.

Some 7,800 employees could qualify for the bonuses. The payments would cost a total of about $10.2 million.

The bonuses would not be awarded to firefighters, who do not pay the healthcare contribution because they have separate insurance plan, or to sanitation or aviation workers. Commissioners restored the pay for those union members three months ago in what amounted to a test case for the remaining five unions whose pay is now on the table.

When Gimenez vetoed ending the healthcare contribution for sanitation and aviation workers in September, commissioners swiftly overrode him.

They could have the votes to do so again on Tuesday, when under county rules the commission would have to nullify or uphold the mayor’s latest veto.

Eight of 11 commissioners voted to stop the healthcare contribution on Dec. 5. Two were absent.

Unless one of them changes their mind, the eight commissioners would need only one more vote to overturn the veto if all 13 commissioners attend. A super-majority of two thirds of the board members present is required to override Gimenez.

One of the commissioners who was absent last week, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, has signaled he would side with the unions, though he has not said explicitly how he would vote. The other commissioner, Juan C. Zapata, has said he would side with Gimenez.

If fewer than 13 commissioners show up, as has sometimes been the case in the past, then it could be quick business for the board to override the mayor.

Gimenez said he hopes commissioners will back up his administration as it gears up to negotiate new three-year contracts with the unions and deal with another looming budget crunch.

“Next year, we can have a manageable problem,” he said, “or we can have a very severe problem.”

Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report.

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