Miami-Dade Mayor Gimenez would shift tax money to libraries under plan

The switch could leave about $12 million less for police, fire and other general services to narrow a funding gap for the library system.

06/24/2014 6:56 PM

06/24/2014 7:57 PM

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Tuesday he plans to shift tax money from the county’s core services in order to ease — but not eliminate — a looming budget shortfall for the library system.

Under the plan, Gimenez would propose a slight cut to the property taxes that fund roads, public-safety functions and other general services, accompanied by an increase in the special property tax for libraries. The shift of about $12 million in an operating budget of $5 billion would be designed as a revenue wash, with most homeowners paying the same overall tax rate despite the change in how the dollars are spent.

The Gimenez strategy seeks to satisfy his pledge of no tax increases while preventing a 40 percent drop in the money available for libraries in the budget year that begins Oct. 1. But the strategy seems unlikely to mollify his critics in the increasingly heated budget debate.

“We’re trying to strike a balance,’’ Gimenez said Tuesday. He confirmed the possibility of a shift in tax rates to avoid reductions in library hours, but said layoffs would still be part of the plan.

“We’re trying to make sure all the libraries stay open with the same number of hours,’’ he said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be some very hefty cuts in the number of employees who work at libraries.”

Sources close to the mayor say library administrators are prepping a budget of about $45 million, less than the current $50 million budget and significantly below the $64 million library advocates say is needed to reverse several years of spending cuts and layoffs. By diverting revenue to the library system, Gimenez also risks exacerbating a budget gap that has his administration considering eliminating more than 400 police positions.

“It seems like a game,’’ said Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes Aventura and other coastal areas. “If we’re going to roll around money, I have a concern about that.”

Even with the higher tax contemplated by Gimenez, libraries would still face cuts. The latest draft plan calls for eliminating about 90 full-time library positions and adding 60 part-time workers, according to a county source familiar with internal budget deliberations. The department has more than 50 full-time vacancies at the moment, but not enough to avoid lay-offs, the source said.

With Gimenez’s proposed library tax rate, administrators would not recommend the reduction in branch hours originally floated under draft 2015 budgets that included no increase in the library tax, several sources said.

The proposed tax-rate shuffle marks the latest approach by Gimenez to mitigate service cuts at Miami-Dade’s 49 library branches.

Thanks in part to a 2011 tax cut Gimenez championed during his first year in office, Miami-Dade’s library tax generates about $30 million a year — well below the library system’s current $50 million budget. Cash reserves have closed the gap in recent years, but the surplus dollars are forecast to be gone by this fall.

Last year, Gimenez briefly proposed a higher library tax before dropping the idea, citing unexpected opposition. To address the funding shortfall, the mayor then unveiled plans to close branches and cut hours, but commissioners voted to tap reserves in order to maintain services and staffing. Earlier this year, Gimenez proposed asking voters to endorse higher taxes for libraries and other recreational services in a nonbinding referendum this summer, but then abandoned that idea after finding little support from commissioners.

A recent Miami Herald poll showed voters opposing higher property taxes to help libraries, with respondents rejecting a hypothetical rate hike by 56-41 percent.

Library advocates want a library tax high enough to support a $64 million budget, and they’re hoping commissioners will adopt one even after Gimenez proposes a lower rate.

“This commission needs to take the reins on the budget and show some leadership. God knows he isn’t,’’ said Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner, a leader in a coalition seeking more library dollars. “He’s been keeping everybody hostage to an ideological constraint that makes no sense whatsoever.”

As he contemplates a tax shift, Gimenez has several options that could determine what county services would be vulnerable.

A reduction to the countywide property tax would cut into dollars available for police and other core services, while tweaking the county’s special fire tax would only impact the rescue services Miami-Dade provides to areas without municipal fire and ambulance squads. Based on preliminary cuts and forecasts for property values, Gimenez’s financial team says Miami-Dade currently faces a $90 million revenue gap for next year’s budget.

The proposed taxing shift also could benefit residents in Hialeah, Miami Shores and other municipalities not covered by the county’s library taxing district. They could see their countywide property tax decrease but not face the corresponding increase to the library tax, since they don’t pay it.

The current library tax amounts to $17 for every $100,000 of a property’s assessed value. A $64 million budget would bring that tax up to about $33 per $100,000 of value, according to the latest estimates from the county property appraiser. The Gimenez plan would amount to about $23 in library tax for every $100,000 of value.

Xavier Suarez, the first county commissioner to endorse a $64 million library budget this year, said he’s against both the smaller library-tax hike that Gimenez wants and the proposed taxing shift the mayor would use to offset the increase.

“I worry about the cuts that will be involved countywide,’’ said Suarez, whose district includes Coconut Grove and South Miami. As for a library budget below $64 million, “that’s not acceptable to me. I want the full monty.”

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