Budget battles scar Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez’s past year in office

02/24/2014 3:59 PM

02/25/2014 7:28 AM

Fresh off a European vacation, Carlos Gimenez settled into his first full term as Miami-Dade County mayor in a relaxed mood last summer, his two years of frenzied political campaigning behind him.

Then he stumbled.

With little input from advisers, Gimenez broke an unwritten rule of recent County Hall politics: He called for a property-tax rate hike in his proposed budget. His phone began to ring. And ring. There was outrage.

Six days later, on July 16, Gimenez reversed himself by canceling the tax-rate hike proposal.

“I may make a misstep or two but will always get back on track,” he pledged at the time.

Ever since then, the mayor has had to fight a series of skirmishes at County Hall.

Gimenez will have an opportunity to reflect on the tumultuous year — and look forward to future challenges — on Wednesday in Hialeah, when he delivers his annual state of the county speech.

Since July, the county commission has twice overturned Gimenez’s vetoes and rejected his advice to avoid a raid on financial reserves to pay for public libraries. Labor unions are miffed over his attempt to keep taking money from workers’ paychecks. And Democrats see an increasingly inviting target in Gimenez, a Republican in a nonpartisan post.

“I don’t win every single battle,” Gimenez acknowledged in an interview Friday.

But, at times, he seems to relish struggle or a chance to try to fix problems he sees.

“I’ll react, and then I’ll say, ‘How will I make lemonade out of lemons?’ That’s usually what I’m trying to do, to find opportunity with everything,” he said.

The condition of the county’s finances remains a perennially sour lemon, though. Gimenez is under pressure to resolve a $42 million shortfall in this year’s $4.4 billion operating budget.

But as his experience in July showed, solutions carry a political cost.

If he proposes tax-rate increases, public anger will start to boil. If he proposes budget cuts — which he did last year after aborting his tax-hike call — unions and activists will be angry.

So far, despite his troubles in County Hall, voters appear to like him, according to recent polls that show he’s popular outside the Stephen P. Clark government center.

His pollster, Dario Moreno, and another local right-leaning pollster, Armando Ibarra, said Gimenez’s approval ratings have held steady or gone up.

Moreno said the mayor’s approval index — the difference between those who have a favorable and unfavorable impression of him — is positive, about plus-30 percentage points. That jibes almost perfectly with numbers from an unrelated private poll conducted on behalf of a business group that shared its numbers with the Miami Herald on condition of anonymity.

Though none of the pollsters would publicly disclose all of their numbers, Moreno said that, for the first time since 2010, more voters (40 percent) believe the county is going in the right direction than in the wrong direction (36 percent).

“People like Carlos,” Moreno said.

But he added that while voters like politicians who stand on principle, the mayor’s potential weakness might be appearing too pugnacious and confrontational. “Carlos is at his best when he’s positive,” Moreno said.

Also, Gimenez’s allies and political insiders note that popularity is fleeting in Miami-Dade, especially for the mayor. His predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, was one of the most-popular figures in the county at one point in his career.

Then, after a series of disastrous political maneuvers — approving a publicly financed baseball stadium, doling out big salaries to County Hall insiders during a recession — he was summarily recalled from office.

Unlike Alvarez, Gimenez appears to pay more attention to opinion polling.

His public popularity aside, Gimenez will need support from two other groups he has clashed with — commissioners and labor — to get more done before his term expires in 2016.

As strong mayor, Gimenez is both the county’s top political figure and its chief administrator. That means he must balance ribbon-cuttings and business pitches with number-crunching and management decisions, a delicate equilibrium in a bureaucracy with a $6.3 billion total budget and more than 25,000 employees.

After he delivers his annual address Wednesday, Gimenez will have to do more than grapple with the budget hole. He’ll also have sit down with unions, whose three-year contracts expire this year. If new ones aren’t signed, several benefit concessions workers gave up to save the county money are scheduled to end, or “snap back,” on Sept. 30.

Beyond the budget, Gimenez and his administration have faced strife on other fronts.

Commissioners rejected his staff’s recommendation for a high-profile airport baggage-wrap contract. They forced him to re-issue a solicitation for a contractor to oversee sewer repairs that later got marred by ethical irregularities. Public outcry prompted his administration to reconsider a delay in drawing new voting precincts.

One thing the mayor and commissioners did agree on: the deal Gimenez negotiated that would have asked voters to give the Miami Dolphins public funds to renovate Sun Life Stadium. The plan eventually went nowhere, effectively killed by the Florida Legislature.

But it could still be used as political fodder against the mayor by critics — and there are many of them — of any deals that give public money to private sports franchises. Gimenez is again diving into uncertain waters by negotiating with retired soccer player David Beckham and his investors over a possible new soccer stadium on county-owned land.

For now, one of the key administrative issues on Gimenez’s plate — the pending union contract negotiations — appear unlikely to go anywhere, given the discord between the two sides.

Gimenez wanted to keep requiring most employees to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs — and warned that his budget did not have wiggle room to eliminate the concession. Commissioners voted for the flat tax-rate — and then defied the mayor and eliminated the concession anyway, leading to more budget bloodletting.

The mayor says unions won’t negotiate with him when they can get more sympathy from commissioners.

But the problem is more fundamental than that, said Terry Murphy, a former commission legislative aide who now works as a consultant for several unions. He argued that having commissioners continue to resolve contract disputes is untenable.

“You have a strong mayor — a countywide elected official — who sees no political upside to negotiating with the unions,” Murphy said. “Reaching an agreement, I think, is perceived to be a liability. And I think that’s where we’re having all this difficulty.”

Before voters changed the government structure in favor of a strong mayor, a county manager employed by the commission worked out contracts more detached from the political fray. (Gimenez’s predecessor, Alvarez, employed a manager himself even as strong mayor.)

That just meant the manager was more likely to please the commission, Gimenez countered. As mayor, he said, he should have differences of opinion with commissioners.

“A community really has to start to worry when everything is hunky-dory,” Gimenez said. “If it’s all Kumbaya, there’s something going on. There’s a reason why there’s a balance of power.”

Still, he conceded to not meeting with commissioners as much as they would like — a frequent criticism leveled against Gimenez, a former commissioner himself. Privately, his advisers have also worried that the off-the-cuff mayor does not seek enough of their counsel before making important decisions.

It’s not just commissioners who have struggled to be heard. One of Gimenez’s main challenges is to listen to the different political groups that made up the broad coalition that got him elected, said Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, chairwoman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Many Democrats backed Gimenez, but the party has been an increasingly louder voice of dissent at County Hall.

The mayor did a better job this month of bringing groups into a debate over new voting precincts, Taddeo-Goldstein said. But that was after initially not reaching out to them at all — a pattern that has given Gimenez’s administration a reputation of being somewhat isolated.

“I think a lot of people, certainly on the Democratic side, have been disappointed, and I hear about it all the time,” Taddeo-Goldstein said. “It’s a very tough job.”

Earlier this month, Gimenez reshuffled his top aides, promoting senior adviser Lisa Martinez to the chief of staff position in large part to help his office better communicate with commissioners and the public, and to craft a stronger mayoral agenda.

The lack of a clear vision has been a sticking point for some commissioners, including Juan C. Zapata, who has publicly railed against Gimenez for failing to use the mayor’s bully pulpit to lead the board.

At least one of Gimenez’s proposals from last year’s county address — an advisory group on rising property-insurance rates — was never convened, despite commission support.

Other big-ticket priorities on his list since his initial 2011 election, such as a new Miami Beach Convention Center and a public-transit link to the Beach from the mainland, have moved slowly.

Zapata said perhaps the mayor is better at dealing with crises.

“In my mind, I keep thinking, ‘This man’s a firefighter. When there’s a fire, he comes out and he puts out the fire,’ ” he said. “Maybe it’s unfair and I’m stereotyping here, but he either rolls with the current or responds to situations. But I don’t see him being proactive. I don’t see him getting ahead of the curve. I don’t see him leading.”

But Gimenez insisted that he does most of his work behind the scenes — much of it is “not sexy,” he said, giving a review of permitting regulations as an example — and not at public events where he unveils initiatives.

“I’d rather be somebody who under-promises and over-delivers,” he said.

Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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