In déjà vu vote, Miami-Dade commission restores workers’ pay, knowing veto is certain

01/16/2014 3:39 PM

01/16/2014 7:27 PM

Miami-Dade County commissioners insisted Thursday they wanted to resolve — somehow — a contract dispute with labor unions that has come before them for a vote over and over again.

Instead, they ended up exactly where they started.

Commissioners voted one more time to end an unpopular healthcare contribution requiring most county and Jackson Health System employees to give up 5 percent of their base pay. The vote was 8-5, just as it was last month.

And once again, Mayor Carlos Gimenez vowed to veto it.

“You don’t even have to ask me the question,” he told a Miami Herald reporter as soon as the meeting was over, throwing up his hands in the air.

Nine votes were required for the vote to be veto-proof. No one budged from their Dec. 5 positions.

Voting in favor were Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez. Voting against were Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Sally Heyman and Juan C. Zapata.

The commission had appeared prepared to compromise on the contribution, which Gimenez wants to extend and the unions want to eliminate, leading to an impasse in their contract negotiations.

After more than two hours of presentations from union leaders, Diaz, Monestime and Suarez said they sympathized but could not imagine voting again to restore employees’ full pay, knowing that the mayor would again wield his veto pen.

Twice, commissioners invoked the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

“The people of this county are going to think we’re not well in the head,” Suarez said, suggesting the dysfunction at County Hall could be compared to that government bogeyman, Washington, D.C.

But before anyone could formally request a vote on a potential compromise, Jordan called to end employees’ healthcare contributions as of the next payday, even if it meant digging into the county’s reserve funds.

Jordan said the alternatives that Gimenez proposed and unions rejected in the past two weeks, particularly slashing employees’ salaries across the board to increase their take-home pay, were “disingenuous.”

“I feel that this commission, quite honestly, has been thrown under the bus,” she said.

Chairwoman Sosa argued that going ahead with Jordan’s proposal, which would require finding $56 million this year in the county’s $4.4 billion operating budget, would be irresponsible. Monestime noted there probably were not enough votes on the dais for a veto-proof majority.

Yet Jordan did not withdraw her motion. And none of the commissioners who have advocated for the unions appeared to want to go on the record as voting against them. Six commissioners face reelection in August.

Heyman and Sosa have been targeted for their previous vote against the unions, with hundreds of colorful flip-flops — as in, flip-flopper — arriving at their offices and unsigned letters going out to politicians in their districts encouraging them to challenge the incumbents.

Service Employees International Union Local 1991, which represents physicians, nurses and other professionals at Jackson Health System, appeared to take responsibility for the stunt, promoting it on its website.

Thursday’s meeting came to an abrupt end at 1:45 p.m., far earlier than anyone expected. More than one commissioner looked frustrated, though also happy to be going home.

“Is it Groundhog Day, or is it me?” John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association, joked earlier from the lectern.

The PBA and other unions have maintained that it is illegal for Gimenez to veto the commission’s impasse decisions, since the commission is supposed to serve as the judge in the dispute between the administration and labor. A state agency ruled against the PBA, which has appealed to a Tallahassee court.

If Thursday’s vote was intended to pressure the mayor into yielding, Gimenez made it clear after the meeting that he does not think his administration’s position is unreasonable.

“I am not going to change my mind,” he told reporters.

He said he was disappointed in commissioners who agreed to keep the property-tax rate flat last year but now want to find the money to pay workers.

“I have the strength of character to say, ‘No, this is the right thing to do.’ ”

Despite their tax-rate vote, however, most commissioners have said the right thing would have been to end the healthcare contribution on Jan. 1 as scheduled, four years after union leaders accepted the concession to help the county in tough financial times.

Extending the contribution hurts the county’s credibility for the next time it needs to ask for help, the unions and some commissioners say.

“This was not something that we gave up,” said Viviene Dixon-Shim, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1363, which represents Jackson hospital support staff. “It was temporary.”

Gimenez has 10 days to veto the commission’s action. His staff and the unions could try to reach an agreement before turning to the commission again, but that appears unlikely.

Commissioners are prohibited by law from discussing the impasses with union leaders, the administration or each other, which means they also cannot craft a compromise behind closed doors.

In short, Commissioner Monestime said: “This exercise has been ineffective, problematic and unhealthy for all of us.”

With no end in sight.

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