Of all the ways to track Miami-Dade’s budget woes, a yardstick offers the best measure at the county park in Biscayne Shores.
The grass there this week neared the two-foot mark, thanks to a rainy summer colliding with Miami-Dade’s new austerity mowing program. Slated to shave about $2 million off the county’s $6 billion budget, the strategy has parks, median strips and roadsides waiting up to eight weeks longer for visits by tax-funded mowing squads.
The result may be the most visible evidence yet of the county’s current budget squeeze, with shaggy grass drawing complaints throughout Miami-Dade.
“Quite honestly, I’m embarrassed as a county commissioner in terms of the height of the grass,’’ said Dennis Moss, who represents some of the most rural areas of Miami-Dade in his southern district. “We don’t cut the grass and do the things that world-class communities do.”
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Facing a property-tax shortfall this spring, Miami-Dade pared down its mowing schedule for the county’s 70 neighborhood parks from 12 times a year to nine. Parks with ball fields or recreational centers receive more attention, and their current mowing schedule of 16 visits a year was cut to 12. The parks department mows medians and roadsides, too, and some are only being cut five times a year under the new plan.
The new regimen went into effect in March, and park administrators say their complaint files show residents aren’t happy.
“People don’t like to walk through high grass. They feel like it itches them,” said Kevin Kirwin, assistant director of operations for the county’s parks system. “We are hearing it loud and clear.”
Miami-Dade has cut back on cutting in the past to save money. In 2005, at the height of the real estate bubble, Miami-Dade mowed neighborhood parks 28 times a year. That dropped to 24 in 2008, as the recession began, and then dwindled down to 12 when the 2014 budget year began. The current regimen to nine mowings amounts to a nearly 70 percent reduction over 10 years — from grass being cut an average of once every 13 days to once every 41 days.
The thriving ground cover at the Biscayne Shores & Gardens park near the intersection of Northeast 14th Avenue and Northeast 116th Street may be one the most dramatic examples of overgrowth at the moment, since the lush stretch of shade trees and walking paths is slated to be mowed this week. It would be the first time since June, parks officials said. A recent visit with a yardstick showed the grass topping 22 inches — high enough that residents said they worried about what might be lurking underneath.
“My kids would be on the grass and running around” if the park was mowed, John La France, an unemployed retail worker, said as his 7-year-old girl and 5-year-old son hovered near a fence with a video game. “You don’t know if a snake is going to be coming.”
In Kendall, Julie Balzano wrote Mayor Carlos Gimenez and recounted how her teenage son and friends set out to play football one day at the nearby Kendale Park. “Unfortunately, they couldn't as the grass hasn't been mowed and its excessive length has made it impossible to play on,” Balzano wrote in a July 28th email. “It was thigh high in some areas!!”
Miami-Dade’s current budget squeeze stems in part from a 2011 property-tax cut, which is expected to cost Miami-Dade about $140 million in lost revenue for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. On top of that, union concessions also secured in 2011 are set to expire on Oct. 1, adding about $40 million in personnel expenses tied to property taxes.
Gimenez designed his proposed budget to absorb the costs by eliminating about 600 county positions and imposing other service cuts unless unions agree to extend the concessions. Last month, a majority of commissioners mostly backed Gimenez’s plan to keep tax rates flat next year, but did approve a higher library tax to avoid the mayor’s plan to dismiss dozens of librarians.
Given the countywide cuts in the mayor’s budget, Gimenez aides say grass height can’t be a priority.
“We’re in very challenging budgetary times, and it’s not just lawn mowing,” said Mike Hernández, Gimenez’s communications director. “Mayor Gimenez would like to have all services operating at maximum capacity. But until we actually resolve our budgetary issues, we’re doing the best we can.”
While the 2015 parks budget includes no new money for grass cutting, parks administrators say next summer shouldn’t be as bad. The cutting cutbacks were imposed in March thanks to what the administration said was an unexpected loss of about $30 million in property-tax revenue tied to valuation appeals.
The parks department was under orders to cut about $1.7 million from its mowing budget this year, but only had six months left in the fiscal year. Administrators said they had no choice but to strip mowing cycles out of the summer schedule. For 2015, they still plan $1.7 million in savings over 2013 levels, but will cut back mowing during the winter months and then spend more during the rainy summer.
Parks “will still have higher grass,” said Jack Kardys, Miami-Dade’s parks director. “But it will be better than what we're seeing now.”
Under the 2015 plan, neighborhood parks like Biscayne Shores would be mowed nine times a year, with only two mowings scheduled four a four-month stretch between February and May, and a single mowing slated for the eight weeks that make up August and September. Larger parks slated for 12 mowings would lose their twice-a-month visits in January, March, April and July.
Despite the service cuts, the county’s $134 million parks budget is slated for a slight increase next year, to $138 million. Kardys said higher labor costs and other expenses left him needing to cut about $5 million from the budget, including reduced hours at the county-owned Zoo Miami and eliminating about 80 full-time positions.
This will be the first time in two years Miami-Dade hasn’t used hotel taxes to significantly bolster the parks budget, saying there are no surplus dollars left for the department from that funding pool. Under its new management agreement at the county-owned AmericanAirlines Arena, the Miami Heat now contribute $1 million a year to the parks department, and the team recently turned over $2 million to Miami-Dade thanks to a provision requiring a double payment for 2014.
Kardys said the extra money wasn’t enough to allow for more aggressive grass trimming.
“There are more needs,” he said.