Budget cuts loom after Miami-Dade commission overrides mayor’s veto on workers’ pay

02/04/2014 11:52 AM

02/04/2014 6:11 PM

A Miami-Dade County Commission meeting expected to end with a compromise Tuesday instead culminated in a stinging defeat for Mayor Carlos Gimenez — and more red ink for the county budget.

Commissioners surprised even themselves by mustering enough votes to overturn a Gimenez veto. The stunning result: The board eliminated a concession paid by county and Jackson Health System workers that had been at the heart of a long-running dispute with labor unions.

Gimenez’s administration will have to find nearly $42 million in the county’s $4.4 billion operating budget this year to make up for the lost concession, which for four years required workers to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs. Jackson hospital will also have to dig deeper into its budget than its administrators had hoped.

Gimenez stormed out of the chambers after the vote and called the commission “completely irresponsible.” Service cuts and pink slips, he said, will be inevitable.

“I’m sure there’s going to be another round of layoffs,” he said. “The commission can’t help themselves — they can’t do the right thing.”

Elated union members and leaders exchanged congratulatory handshakes after the 9-4 vote against the mayor, which elicited loud gasps from the crowd inside the County Hall commission chambers.

“It’s fair,” said John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association.

The mayor had twice vetoed the commission’s 8-5 vote to eliminate the healthcare contribution. His administration seemed on the verge of a compromise Tuesday that would have phased out the giveback between now and the end of the fiscal year, easing the hit on the budget.

But before the commission could consider a deal, it had to vote on the veto itself. That’s when Commissioner Juan C. Zapata switched sides, giving the majority the deciding vote it needed to override the mayor.

Instead of agreeing to restore 3 percent of employees’ pay now and 2 percent by Sept. 30, Miami-Dade will restore the full 5 percent. The measure is retroactive to Jan. 20, because when commissioners took their initial vote Jan. 16, they made the decision effective as of the next pay period.

Zapata said he was well aware that his vote could lead to job losses and fewer services.

“But at the end of the day, something needs to give,” Zapata said. “If there’s going to be harsh medicine, better take it sooner rather than later.”

Zapata said his vote should not be read as support for the unions — he called the county budget structurally flawed and “unsustainable” — but as a rebuke of the mayor, whom Zapata criticized for not leading the commission.

“At some point, someone has to talk about what’s going to happen down the road. I’ve heard no one from the administration lay out that vision,” he said. “Sometimes you have to make a dramatic statement.”

A relatively new commissioner in his second year in county office, Zapata has not tried to mask his frustration with county government. By Tuesday, he had apparently reached his limit.

It wasn’t just Zapata who had enough with the mayor, said Mark Richard, an attorney for several unions.

“Today’s vote is simply a statement that the commission will no longer deal with his lack of leadership,” Richard said.

Gimenez countered that Zapata chose an expensive way to make a point. “In order to, I guess, teach me a lesson, he used taxpayer money,” the mayor said.

A cheerier Gimenez had begun his remarks Tuesday on a light-hearted note, citing the movie Groundhog Day and joking that, like actor Bill Murray reliving each morning in the film, he had awakened Tuesday to Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe.

So surprising was Zapata’s change of heart that when Commissioner Barbara Jordan made the procedural motion to overturn the veto, she added, “which I’m sure will probably fail.”

Zapata voted for the override along with Jordan and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez. Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, Vice-Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Sally Heyman voted against.

After the vote, Jordan said the budget pain would not be so bad because only about half of the cuts will have to come from departments directly funded by property taxes. The rest will have to be cut from departments such as water and sewer that are funded by their own fees and fines.

For the public Jackson hospital, the commission’s decision will require finding $18 million in its $1.5 billion operating budget, Chief Executive Carlos Migoya said. That’s about $7 million more than the hospital had expected it would have to cobble together.

Jackson had reached a tentative agreement with its two unions to phase out the 5 percent healthcare contribution. That would have cost about $10.8 million, Migoya said. But the agreements became moot with Tuesday’s decision.

“We’re committed to finding efficiencies” in the Jackson budget, Migoya said.

A separate agreement that would give hospital workers a one-time 3 percent bonus is unaffected. The Public Health Trust that oversees Jackson is scheduled to discuss the bonuses later this month.

Migoya reiterated Tuesday that employees should get the “gain-sharing payments” in order to benefit from the better-than-expected surplus the hospital posted last year.

While Gimenez slammed Migoya over the bonuses, the mayor had appeared ready to accept a phase-out of the healthcare contribution for the other five unions that were at impasse. His administration made that offer to one union over the weekend.

Instead, Gimenez was thwarted by a commission flexing its political muscle — again. The last time the board overturned a mayoral veto was in September, eliminating the healthcare contribution for sanitation workers.

The earlier override resulted in aviation workers getting their pay restored as of Jan. 1. Several commissioners had said they could not justify treating other unions differently. Firefighters have been exempt from the contribution because they have a separate health-insurance plan.

Except for firefighters, the county pays employees’ standard health-insurance premiums. Employees must pay the difference if they want higher levels of coverage, and they must also cover premiums and co-pays for spouses and children.

Gimenez plans to continue requiring the healthcare contribution from non-unionized employees who fall under his purview, his office said Tuesday. About 2,600 of the county’s more than 25,000 employees do not belong to a union; about 1,800 of them work for the mayor.

Most commissioners have not taken the pay from their staffs, in some cases funding the equivalent amount from elsewhere in their office budgets. Each commissioner will have to decide what to do now in light of Tuesday’s vote.

An earlier version of this story misstated the date to which workers' pay will be retroactively restored. It will be Jan. 20. That difference, and the mayor's decision to keep the healthcare contribution for workers under his purview, shrank the budget shortfall to nearly $41 million.

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