Miami Commission sets tax cap, considers hiring more police

07/24/2014 6:34 PM

07/24/2014 6:35 PM

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado wants to pay for 20 more cops next year. On Thursday, the city commission told him to bring back a proposal for five times that number.

Despite cautions about going on a spending binge, commissioners unanimously voted to direct City Manager Daniel Alfonso to bring back a second budget proposal that would pay for 100 new police officers. If passed during two hearings in September, that would bring the Miami police department to almost 1,300 funded police positions.

Commissioners Marc Sarnoff and Francis Suarez said the additional police are needed to combat crime in a city of Miami’s size. So did Coconut Grove resident and pollster Fernand Amandi, who during a presentation urged the commission to fund more officers next year or face a backlash from residents.

“I’ve polled the city of Miami residents many, many, many times,” Amandi said. “You know what the number one issue is? It's not making sure property taxes aren’t increased. It’s addressing crime and public safety.”

Last year commissioners voted to fund an extra 95 officers, but the city has struggled to fill that number. This fall, however, the city could have a crop of unemployed police officers to hire quickly if the county ends up laying off hundreds of officers due to a budget crunch.

Alfonso will have to come up with the alternative spending plan by cutting other portions of Regalado’s $552 million budget, because commissioners also voted 4 to 1 to lower the city’s tax rate. They did so by supporting Regalado’s tax proposal, which lowers the overall tax rate slightly to about $8.38 per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value.

Suarez voted against the rate, saying it’s still a tax increase because, while the overall rate is dropping, the portion that funds general expenses is going up. The portion of the tax rate to fund the city’s debt is dropping.

The rate can be lowered in September, but can’t be raised.

Alfonso and Regalado say hiring 20 officers next year is a responsible number. The city is just emerging from a recession that saw municipal reserves plummet to $13 million and employee wages and benefits slashed to balance the books.

And while $17 million is projected to be left over from the current fiscal year, and the city could get another $13 million if voters approve an extended Bayside lease in August, Alfonso said that money isn’t guaranteed yet. And regardless, spending that money on recurring expenses could be a gamble in future years, he said.

“The $17 million of projected surplus is not a fact yet. We could have a storm next month and that could be wiped out,” Alfonso said. “The $13 million… could be or could not be there. But that’s one-time money.”

Alfonso has also stressed the need for the city to bolster its reserves, which are tens of millions of dollars below where city law requires them to be.

Commissioner Keon Hardemon questioned whether hiring more police would actually address recent headline-grabbing crimes, like the fatal shooting of a pastor in Liberty City. That killing happened some 50 yards from an officer, who chased down the accused shooter.

“What I’m continuing to hear is the more officers you have the less crime there will be, as if crime was a symptom of having less officers,” said Hardemon. “Where I come from we have this thing called poverty. And from what I’ve learned, any time there’s poverty there’s crime.”

To that point, commissioners also asked Alfonso to find $2 million for an “anti-poverty” initiative that Hardemon proposed.

Regalado and Alfonso will present the two budget options during budget hearings in September.

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