Mayor’s police budget cuts into investigator ranks

07/14/2014 7:04 PM

07/15/2014 6:10 AM

As he proposes an 8 percent cut in Miami-Dade’s police payroll, Mayor Carlos Gimenez repeatedly notes the reductions won’t affect patrol officers.

“You’re going to have the same number of police officers on the street as you do today,” he said in a recent interview. “This is a department of over 3,000 cops. You really can’t tell me you see 3,000 cops on the street everyday. A lot of them are behind desks.”

A look at the numbers behind the mayor’s austerity plan shows many of the targeted desk jobs belong to plainclothes investigators charged with solving crimes. The county’s budget office reports that of the roughly 230 police-officer positions slated for elimination, about half can be considered either investigators or officers assigned to work cases.

The spreadsheet used to tally the department’s job cuts lays out the reductions in the county’s investigator ranks: 10 from the economic-crimes unit, 17 each from the robbery unit and the domestic-violence unit, and 35 from the drug-and-gangs unit.

“This is what he calls desk jobs,” John Rivera, head of the county’s police union, said of Gimenez. “They sit at a desk part of the time. Because they’re doing computer work. Then they’re out on the street.”

The proposed police cuts offer some of the most emotional fodder to critics of Gimenez’s $6.2 billion budget, which faces a key vote Tuesday before county commissioners. Gimenez proposed a collection of fee increases and service cuts that would allow Miami-Dade to keep property-tax rates flat, and commissioners are slated to vote on whether to raise the county’s tax ceiling in order to allow for higher rates.

Commissioners are under pressure from unions, library advocates, charity-grant recipients and others to overrule Gimenez and lift the county’s current ceiling on tax rates.

Gimenez and his allies portray the debate as a false choice, with the proposed cuts avoidable if unions agree to concessions during ongoing labor negotiations. Gimenez’s budget proposes eliminating 674 jobs across the county bureaucracy, layoffs he said are needed only if Miami-Dade absorbs a series of union benefits set to automatically kick in when the next budget year begins Oct. 1.

The so-called “snap-back” benefits would cost $113 million for 2015, with $40 million coming from departments largely funded by property taxes, according to budget estimates. Gimenez also wants unions to agree to new healthcare plans that bring down the county’s overall healthcare costs by 15 percent.

“The budget I proposed last week was a worst-case scenario, and I don’t support the worst-case scenario,” Gimenez told reporters gathered outside his 29th-floor office at County Hall. “I hope the commission gives a clear signal to our labor unions that they are firm and they don’t want our services cut.”

On the eve of Tuesday’s meeting at downtown Miami’s Stephen P. Clark government center, Commissioner Lynda Bell released a statement slamming the idea of raising taxes. “We must put an end to the culture of entitlement created by labor leaders,’’ she said. To solve Miami-Dade’s budget woes, “public servants should be treated no differently than any other hard-working taxpayer who receives a well-earned salary and benefits. No more no less.”

Commissioners are slated to set six different property-tax rates that generate more than $1 billion of Miami-Dade’s $6 billion budget. Four rates fund operations: one for countywide services, one just for unincorporated Miami-Dade, and one each for the fire and library departments. Another two fund bond payments for county debt approved by voters, which is scheduled to cost an additional $1 billion next year.

The first four rates are up for debate, with the debt-service taxes considered automatic. Gimenez proposed slight reductions in the countywide and fire rates, with a corresponding increase in the library tax to ease a looming funding crisis in the system. Library advocates want a higher tax to boost the current $50 million budget to $64 million, while fire and police unions are balking at the plan to siphon even a little bit of revenue from their agencies to libraries.

While tax rates would stay flat in the Gimenez budget, fees paid by residents would increase. Among the proposed increases: boosting transit fares by 25 cents to $2.50 per ride; charging $35 for vaccinations currently free at the county’s animal shelter, and imposing lot fees at some parks where parking is free.

As Miami-Dade’s largest department, police were bound to take a large hit in any budget-cutting exercise. In all, the department’s 4,000-position payroll would shrink 8 percent, with a loss of 87 civilian workers and 228 officers. Of those officers, 115 are considered investigators or officers working to solve cases, according to a summary provided by the county’s budget office.

The cuts come from Gimenez’s push to pare down the county’s specialized investigative units, and transfer their case load to investigators assigned to general duties in the various precincts around Miami-Dade. But department administrators predict consequences from the proposed investigator cuts.

With a loss of 17 investigators, the county’s Special Victims unit forecasts delays in interviewing witnesses and hold-ups in assisting social workers who relocate victims of domestic violence, according to internal budget documents. The unit handles cases related to sex abuse, domestic violence and child welfare. The robbery unit claims success in “combating violent felonies” and “it is likely that such incidents would increase with these reductions,” department administrators wrote in the budget summary.

While average police response to emergencies is forecast to increase to 8 minutes from this year’s budget of 6 minutes and 45 seconds, the non-emergency response time more than doubles, from 13 minutes to 30 minutes next year.

Acting Miami-Dade County Police Director Juan Perez called the proposed cuts a worst-case scenario that “we can't afford.”

“Nobody wants their house broken into, and it taking a detective twice as long to look into it,” he said. “Hopefully something can be resolved. We can’ afford this.”

At his Monday press conference, Gimenez noted that none of the county’s special-investigative units would be disbanded under his plan, but their ranks would be reduced. And he criticized Rivera, the union chief, for using fears over public safety to make the case for what Gimenez characterized as a compensation play.

“Mr. Rivera wants you to pay more so he can put more money into his members’ pockets,” he said. “We can have all of those investigators back … simply by extending the concessions and reducing the cost of healthcare.”

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