An economic milestone arrived this year for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez: a property-tax base larger than the one that greeted him when he took office in 2011.
But the recovery in real estate values hasn’t brought much help to the county’s budget team. They still have about $240 million less property-tax revenue to work with than they did before Gimenez pushed through a tax cut just 19 days after being sworn in on July 1, 2011.
Three years later, the 12-percent cut continues driving spending decisions. On Tuesday, Gimenez is set to unveil a budget calling for about 700 job cuts to bridge a $64 million deficit. That gap largely measures the shortfall between property taxes and the cost of current county services, but Gimenez insists this is no time to raise rates.
“I know the majority of voters don’t want to pay more property taxes,’’ he said. “They want us to be more efficient. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Arguably Gimenez’s signature achievement as mayor, the tax cut promises to once again define a fault line in the upcoming budget debate.
To union leaders, Gimenez wants to balance the budget at the expense of county workers, since he’s using the planned layoffs in the 2015 budget to pressure employees into extending temporary cuts in pay and benefits the mayor also secured in 2011.
“It’s unsustainable,” said John Rivera, president of the county’s police union. “Since he took over, you’ve had diminishing taxation but also the quality of life has been reduced as well.”
With law enforcement set to absorb the bulk of the job cuts, Rivera’s Police Benevolent Association has taken the lead in bashing Gimenez’s plan.
The fire union stepped up Monday, too, joining the father of one of the four people killed in a July 4 boating accident off Miami to condemn staffing issues that prevented Miami-Dade from deploying nearby rescue boats to the scene. Jack Garcia, a retired Miami-Dade rescue boat captain, lost his son, Andrew, in the nightime crash.
“Everything that could have been done was not done,” said Garcia, who had warned of dangers associated with cost-cutting in the marine units. “Everything that should have been there was not there.”
In 2011, Gimenez’s first budget cut 36 positions dedicated to the county’s two largest fire boats. The new mayor, a former Miami fire chief, wanted to have some firefighters trained in marine response staff both the rescue boats and firetrucks. Union leaders objected, saying the strategy sacrificed readiness for the sake of saving money.
The stand-off essentially idled the boats, which are stationed at PortMiami, a short run from the scene of Friday’s accident. Fire Chief Dave Downey said he would have deployed the PortMiami boats Friday if not for the staffing issue, and that Miami-Dade did send a rescue helicopter after the Coast Guard said it welcomed the help. He noted the Coast Guard and City of Miami had not requested county assistance, but that an off-duty Miami-Dade firefighter had asked the department to mobilize boats for the response.
“If I had the asset available, I would have sent it,” he said. “It’s not in a state of readiness.”
Union leaders on Monday stopped short of saying the lack of Miami-Dade rescue boats led to loss of life, but they pointed to the county’s idled vessels as a needless casualty of budget issues. “It’s said it takes a tragedy like this to bring things to light,” said Al Cruz, head of the the county International Association of Fire Firegithers union. “We need to get the resources.”
The Monday press conference prompted a statement from Gimenez late Monday blaming the union for rejecting his efforts to get the PortMiami marine squadron active with cross-trained workers. “It’s time for IAFF Local 1403 to put service for residents and visitors before their own self interests,” he wrote.
Monday’s escalating exchange on fire-boat staffing captures the central tension in Gimenez’s tenure. Unions blame him for being too quick to demand cuts. Gimenez sees unreasonable union perks forcing Miami-Dade to spend more than it needs on payroll.
At a noon press conference Tuesday, Gimenez plans to unveil a budget that reduces the special property tax that funds the fire department in order to compensate for an increase of the library property tax — part of a strategy to keep the overall county tax burden flat.
Gimenez’s proposal would mean another year of Miami-Dade’s tax rates not crossing the ceiling he set in 2011. The mayor said he’s not to blame for the current budget squeeze, since Miami-Dade could avoid layoffs if unions agreed to concessions.
“I don’t feel responsible for it,” he said. “I could have it all if I didn’t have to pay the unions what they want. At the end of the day, it’s ‘Give us more. And you have to pay us more.’ ”
The 2011-12 Gimenez budget reduced Miami-Dade’s overall property-tax rate by 12 percent, to $974 per $100,000 of assessed value, from $1,104.
Endorsed by commissioners, the cut fulfilled Gimenez’s promise to roll back the hike secured by his predecessor, Carlos Alvarez. That 13 percent increase did not yield additional property-tax revenue for Miami-Dade. Given the ongoing real estate crash, the county collected about $38 million less in property taxes in 2011 than it did in 2010, according to financial reports.
Voters were still furious at the increase, according to polls at the time, a backlash fueled in part by Alvarez arranging hefty raises for his senior staff. Anger at Alvarez fueled a successful recall movement, allowing Gimenez, then a county commissioner, to run for mayor as a reformer.
The political climate also delivered a key element of the 2011-12 Gimenez budget: labor concessions now estimated to be worth about $40 million a year. They were the centerpiece in a set of three-year labor contracts that happened to be up for renewal when Gimenez took office. Most of the givebacks are set to expire when the 2014-15 budget year begins Oct. 1.
Union advocates say Gimenez is trying to extend the recession’s austerity on workers at a time when real estate is roaring back, unemployment is waning and other government revenue — including sales taxes and hotel taxes — are at record levels.
Facing the increased payroll costs caused by restoring the benefits slated to automatically “snap back” on Oct. 1, Gimenez said job and service cuts are the only option without a property-tax increase that he insists he won’t support.
Gimenez has twice flirted with revisiting his 2011 tax cuts. Several months ago, Gimenez inched toward another tax-increase attempt, this time proposing a summer straw-poll asking voters to endorse higher taxes for parks, libraries and cultural institutions. Gimenez soon dropped the idea for a non-binding vote.
The short-lived pursuit of a non-binding ballot item followed the roughest stretch in Gimenez’s tenure as mayor when he briefly proposed a 5 percent tax increase last summer. It would have restored the overall tax rate to about 92 percent of where it was during Alvarez’s last year in office.
Six days later, Gimenez withdrew his plan, saying the proposed rate was too unpopular to pass.
“People are not in favor of any increased taxes, in any way, shape or form,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald. “I’m not deaf.”