Gimenez floats idea of asking voters to endorse higher taxes

03/19/2014 10:30 AM

03/19/2014 9:44 PM

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez may ask voters to endorse higher property taxes this summer in order to fund a roster of improved county services involving libraries, parks and cultural activities.

Gimenez declined to provide details behind the possible straw poll, except to say the new dollars would mostly support functions that benefit children. While not binding, the vote could give Gimenez and county commissioners the political support to raise property taxes in an election year.

“I’m considering asking the people to invest in the future, and mainly for children,” Gimenez said Wednesday. “I’m thinking about enhanced services.”

While the mayor emphasized he may drop the idea, the potential for voters to weigh in on higher taxes comes at a time when Miami-Dade faces a $200 million budget gap next year, including a significant shortfall in the public library system.

A library task force that Gimenez chaired met on Wednesday to endorse a report calling for a higher library tax in order to prevent a 40 percent cut in library spending next year. Without the added revenue, the library plans to cut most branches to a four-day schedule, impose significant staffing cuts, consolidate services and reduce Bookmobile travels.

“There’s going to be pain,” library director Raymond Santiago said of the spending-cut plan. “This is not a budget anybody would be jumping up and down for. But it’s a reality.”

The current tax increase sought by the task force would maintain the library’s current $50 million budget and avoid the cost-savings scenario Santiago outlined to the task force.

Santiago’s department relies on a special property tax dedicated to county libraries, and it generates about $30 million a year. The library sustained a $50 million budget this year by burning through $20 million in reserves, but the cash surplus is forecast to be gone by the fall.

If forced to operate with a $30 million budget in 2015, Santiago said the system can still keep all branches open, thanks to shorter hours and the four-day schedule. In all, the schedule reductions outlined by Santiago would reduce library hours countywide by about 35 percent — from 2,000 hours a week to 1,328, according to scheduling information posted online and Santiago’s report.

A tax increase would let Santiago maintain the current $50 million budget. But even with more tax dollars, Santiago still plans to impose staffing cuts and reduce some services in order to spend dollars elsewhere. A dozen libraries would shift from five-day schedules to four days and the library would replace some full-time workers with part-timers. That would bring countywide library hours to about 1,700 per week, a 15 percent drop from the current level.

By shifting staffing dollars in a $50 million budget, Miami-Dade would restore Sunday hours to eight of the system’s largest libraries, including Coral Gables, Northeast and Miami Beach. Sunday hours have been eliminated as a cost-saving measure. Currently, the library property tax is about $17.25 for every $100,000 of valuation. For the tax plan outlined in Santiago’s $50 million budget, the tax would be about $28.40 for the same valuation.

With a $50 million budget, Santiago said the system would probably double its $1 million materials budget to allow it to purchase more digital publications and actual books. The library’s budget for children’s books has dropped about 60 percent in three years.

Wednesday’s meeting produced no debate, and the 17-member task force did not vote to endorse a staff report that attempted to summarize the group’s consensus when it came to library spending and taxes. That four-page document calls for the county to “increase the millage rate in order to both maintain and increase library services.” Millage is the technical term for the county’s various property-tax rates, including one dedicated to libraries and one to fire-and-rescue services.

After the meeting, one task member criticized the group’s tacit endorsement of the $50 million budget, saying the system needs more revenue. “It took me some time to digest this,” said John Quick, a Coral Gables lawyer and president of the Friends of the Miami Dade Library organization. “The reality is the $50 million budget does not maintain the library at the level of service that the people need or want.”

The library question captures the delicate position facing Gimenez, who in 2011 ushered in the reduced library spending as part of a larger package that reversed the tax increases enacted by his predecessor, then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez. Alvarez cut the library tax, too, but a return to the pre-Gimenez level would be enough to generate the $50 million the library system needs to maintain current funding.

On Wednesday, Gimenez stopped short of endorsing the increase in the library tax called for in the task-force report, which County Hall staff prepared.

“I’d be open to … a voter referendum on this issue,” he said. “I do believe the libraries need additional funding.”

Gimenez would not elaborate beyond saying he’s contemplating asking for a countywide vote encouraging Miami-Dade to bolster revenue for the library system, county parks and unspecified cultural activities. “It would be a straw poll set in August about whether voters want increased services, and [an] increase in the millage rate for those services,” Gimenez said. “Not just maintaining the status quo.”

Should Gimenez pursue a straw poll, the timing would be tight. His proposed budget is due in July, and Gimenez said he may propose two alternatives — one with the additional revenue and one without. Commissioners also vote on the maximum tax rate in July, but the final budget adopted in September can contain a lower rate.

The idea sets up the possibility of Gimenez following the acts of Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho and Jackson Hospital CEO Carlos Migoya, who both successfully championed voter-approved tax increases to fund construction and expansion projects. While those measures were binding, Gimenez could only secure a message from voters to influence the county commission’s authority over the budget.

Commissioners don’t have to listen. A 2012 straw poll called for creating a new property tax to fund animal services in Miami-Dade, but Gimenez and commissioners this year balked at adding a new tax to property owners’ bills.

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