Miami commission to vote Thursday on tax cap

07/23/2014 6:43 PM

07/23/2014 6:44 PM

Four years after staring down the brink of financial disaster, the city of Miami finally has money to spend. Or not.

Mayor Tomás Regalado has proposed using an influx of new property taxes next year to boost public safety by millions, and tap into a stash of development fees to pay for parks improvements and new vehicles. He and City Manager Daniel Alfonso also want to set aside a potentially substantial sum as a sign to lenders that Miami’s shaky financial credibility has been restored.

But before he can impress the banks, Regalado must first convince commissioners that saving trumps spending. That officially starts Thursday, when the commission sets a taxing cap for next year’s $552 million general fund. Some elected officials have already said they want to pay for dozens more cops, and the city’s unions want previous pay and benefit cuts restored.

Few if any expect a push to hike taxes Thursday. Instead, commissioners are likely to tow the Regalado tax line and set the stage this fall for a debate that could once again pit financial prudency against public safety and employees.

“We explained to them they can’t have it both ways,” said Regalado. “You can’t build the reserves, please all the unions, and hire 100 cops in one month.”

If commissioners leave Regalado’s budget whole, they’ll set aside $15 million for reserves and unpredictable expenses, like tax collection shortfalls. The city is also carrying an estimated $17 million surplus in the current year, and could receive an extra $13 million if voters approve a referendum for Bayside and the SkyRise tower next month.

In total, that could be $45 million in untapped dollars. Put that to reserves, and the city’s rainy day fund — $13 million in 2010 — would be just about fully stocked at the percentage required by law. Alfonso said that would be an immediate sign to lenders that the city’s financial standing is back, and hopefully lead to improved credit ratings and lower borrowing costs.

But employees and some commissioners believe some of that money could be better put to use now. Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who continues to call for more police, says the city should pay for an extra 100 cops. He says Miami, where the per-capita ratio of police to citizens is significantly below cities like Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, has too few police officers.

Last year, the commission voted for an extra 95 cops at a cost of about $10 million, forcing the administration to find the dollars. Regalado is already proposing 20, so add another 80 and the department would grow to close to 1,300 officers.

“If you’re going to save something, I would prefer to save lives,” said Sarnoff.

Last year, the police union was on board with more officers, but not this year.

Union President Sgt. Javier Ortiz said the city has only been able to hire about half the police they paid for last fall, so funding more police positions is unrealistic even as the city waits to scoop up dozens of county cops who may be laid off. He said it’s time to reward employees who endured recession-era cuts that for some cops slashed pay by as much as 20 percent after the economy crashed and generous union contracts proved too expensive.

The city has proposed giving $5.5 million to all four of its unions for 2 percent pay bumps, and last year tapped a few million from reserves for pay and benefits. Alfonso and Regalado say the city’s pay remains competitive and benefits prudent, but Ortiz and Firefighter union president Robert Suarez say more money is available.

“The mayor has been very public about not wanting to restore our benefits. He keeps on scaring the stakeholders in the community that doing so would create an increase in taxes,” said Ortiz. “But we have tens of millions in surplus and our projected reserves.”

If the debate sounds a lot like last fall’s, that’s because it’s almost the exact same conversation city leaders were having in 2013, the first time in years where they had money to spend instead of cut. Thursday’s hearing will even feature a presentation by South Grove resident and political pollster Fernand Amandi, who last year was among a large group that rallied at City Hall to push for more cops.

“The city needs to recommit to public safety,” said Amandi. “We’re not trying to rally a huge number. That will only be done if the city doesn’t decide to go along with those recommendations.”

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