Lower tax rate, more public safety spending in Regalado’s Miami budget

07/09/2014 5:37 PM

07/09/2014 6:23 PM

Millions will be invested in new and improved parks and in public safety, and Miami homeowners will pay taxes at a reduced rate under a 2015 budget proposed Wednesday by Mayor Tomás Regalado and City Manager Daniel Alfonso.

The budget — buouyed by a construction boom and rising property values — lays out a billion-dollar spending plan. A little more than half goes toward the city’s general fund for everyday expenses, which would increase by $27 million. Regalado said after a press conference that the budget reflects a rosier outlook for a city that recently endured a financial crisis.

“Miami is back,” the mayor said.

The proposal slightly reduces the city’s tax rate, and would result in a property tax bill from the city of about $500 for the owner of a median-valued home with a homestead tax exemption. It also calls for an extra $18 million in spending on the police and fire departments, and $35 million from a substantial pot of development fees for improving and purchasing city parks.

The budget includes millions more for employees’ health coverage, wages, benefits and overtime. Also in the proposal: another $5 million for once-depleted reserves, which the mayor and manager hope will be further bolstered should voters approve a new lease agreement with Bayside in August.

Regalado and Alfonso touted the budget Wednesday, saying they sought to use an influx of dollars from a development boom and increasing real estate values in ways that won’t force steep cuts should the economy tank again. Memories still linger of the last boom and bust, after which the city repeatedly declared “financial urgency” and saved money by slashing employee wages and benefits.

“Miami is not going to fall into the hole again with expenses that we can’t afford,” said Regalado, noting that no one will be laid off because of his budget.

The proposed budget is only a preliminary document. Commissioners must set a tentative tax rate this month and approve a balanced taxing and spending plan during two hearings in September.

Already Wednesday, two commissioners said they wanted to see Regalado hire dozens more police officers.

The mayor has proposed hiring 20 more cops, bringing the number of newly funded police positions to 55 during the last two years and bringing the budgeted police force to about 1,200 sworn officers, according to Alfonso. But commissioners Francis Suarez and Marc Sarnoff said they want to hire another 100 officers this year, with a plan to beef up the force by 300 over a three-year span.

“That’s totally inadequate,” Sarnoff said of Regalado’s hiring proposal. “My position is very clear: 100” new officers.

The mayor’s proposed budget also hinges in part on contract negotiations with the city’s four unions. In early talks, according to the mayor, the two sides remain far apart, though he said the city has proposed some salary and benefits increases to the tune of $5 million.

Robert Suarez, president of the city’s fire union, said employees gave up huge concessions during the recession, when the city was staring at a massive budget hole. Now that times are good, the union president said city officials should give back some of what they took.

“The past four years have been really brutal, excruciating,” said Suarez. “The city now is doing extremely well financially, and we’re asking not that those cuts be fully reinstated, but that the city move in the direction of undoing some of those” cuts.

Negotiations continued Wednesday. Alfonso said what he is offering keeps employees’ compensation competitive, even while the city expects pension obligations to cost millions more and top $80 million this year.

“We’re not growing at the rate people would like to see us grow in terms of expenses,” Alfonso said. “But I think this is a prudent budget.”

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