At Miami-Dade County Hall, advocates fight for funding

07/15/2014 5:16 PM

07/15/2014 10:04 PM

With only 120 seconds for each to speak, about 100 people waited more than three hours to be called to the podium at the Miami-Dade County Commission chambers to have their say over the coming year’s property-tax rate.

They packed the chambers in their matching T-shirts, turquoise blue for libraries, canary yellow for firefighters. Chairs and a projector were set up in the lobby for an overflow crowd to watch.

For many people, it wasn’t easy to attend. But they wanted to support county services that could take a hit or go away under Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed budget.

Strapped with a 4--month-old on her chest and a 2-year-old in hand, Shannon Traynor, 32, a stay-at-home mom, woke up before dawn to ride from the Dadeland South Metrorail station to the Stephen P. Clark Government Center downtown.

Traynor, an attorney before she became a stay-at-home mom, said she enjoys visiting the libraries with her children.

“We go to storytime all over the county,” she said. “For arts-and-crafts time, the singing and the dancing, and the reading of the books.”

For Julissa Torguet, 43, waking up at 6:30 a.m., missing a day at work, driving an hour through traffic from Westchester and waiting about three hours to speak at the commission hearing was worth all the effort.

“Libraries are a sanctuary for our communities,” said Torguet, who works at a publishing house. “We need to fully fund our libraries because there are many children in our community that if they don't have to the access to the libraries will not be ready for college and career readiness in the future.”

William Rolle, 17, woke up even earlier — at 5:30 a.m. — and took three buses and the Metrorail to get from Miami Gardens to County Hall. Libraries, he said, keep kids out of trouble and provide them with a safe place.

“I’m never home,” he said. “Monday through Saturday, I’m always at the library.”

Tracey Bowen Bell, 44, an instructor at Miami Dade College and a member of the Coalition to Save Our Libraries, walked four blocks to Government Center with about 90 students donning matching T-shirts. They walked because they knew they would not all fit on the Metromover.

“We felt we are going to walk over as a sea of blue,” she said. “People who see us walking are going to stop and ask what is going on, and so it was another way to raise awareness and offer support.”

Her students are participating in JumpStart, a program that helps incoming freshmen adjust to college, and advocating for the libraries is part of a service project.

“We’re teaching them what civic engagement is all about,” she said.

One of the students, 18-year-old freshman Johanna Piard, called learning about library funding issues in college “a wake-up call.”

“This is a community issue and people need to think of the big picture,” said Piard, who said she collected 105 petitions to support higher library funding.

Though a smattering of people opposed raising the tax rate, the bulk of the crowd asked for higher taxes — including Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Omar Blanco, who said he disagrees with Gimenez’s plan to move a portion of taxes from the fire department to libraries.

“The mayor is making the public choose between educating the public and protecting the public,” said Blanco, 42. “To move money from the fire department to the libraries is a slight of hand by the mayor because they don’t overlap.”

Little was said about how long people had to wait — three hours — for the public hearing to begin. It took another three hours for everyone who had signed up and remained at County Hall to speak.

“Let me say thank you,” Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz said, “to all the citizens who didn’t go to work today so they could be here.”

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