Miami-Dade County commissioners pushed back on Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s revised budget plan Monday, asking why he didn’t decide earlier to use hotel taxes and a new source of surplus dollars dollars to avoid planned police layoffs.
“When did the light bulb go off?” asked Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the commission’s Finance Committee. “We set a lot of these rules, and now it seems like some way or the other we’ve found loopholes in these rules.”
Last month, Bovo joined a majority of commissioners to endorse Gimenez’s call for an austerity budget that included a string of cuts, including the loss of about 260 police jobs. At the time, Gimenez called the plan his “worst-case scenario” budget and said he would fight for a better one by demanding pay concessions and healthcare changes from unions.
In recent weeks, Gimenez dropped his demand for the pay concessions and announced that only about 145 police cuts would be needed, saying he would use spare hotel taxes, recalculate the planned 2014 surplus and other savings to pay for the less-austere spending plan.
“As we identified additional funds, all of the additional money has gone to restoring police cuts,” said Jennifer Moon, Gimenez’s budget chief. Gimenez, who has held briefings with commissioners in recent weeks, did not attend Monday’s meeting.
With pay concessions off the table, Gimenez is pushing unions to accept a less-generous healthcare plan in order to cut the county’s insurance costs by 15 percent. With the savings, Gimenez said he can avoid all police layoffs, undo cuts to lawn-mowing for the county’s roads and parks and drop a plan to trim hours for Miami-Dade’s 311 answer center.
Rebeca Sosa, the powerful chairwoman of the commission, took aim at Gimenez’s healthcare proposal, which administration officials emphasize would reduce premiums for many workers who also insure family members.
“Everything is wonderful as long as everyone is healthy,” Sosa said. Depending on which plan the employee uses now, the cost increase from the mayor’s plan “is going to be incredible.”
Monday’s gathering of nine commissioners for a budget discussion was their first chance to publicly grill administration officials on Gimenez’s revised spending plan, which still includes higher transit fares, reductions in county charity grants and a string of other cost-saving measures, including about 300 non-police job cuts countywide. Commissioners spent little time praising Gimenez’s budget changes, and instead pressed county officials on how the pending cuts could be avoided.
Commissioner Barbara Jordan, a former county administrator, called for Gimenez to reverse his proposed 10 percent cut in the county’s Community Based Organization program, which funds social-service charities. “We have to realize they fill a gap,” Jordan said. “They have direct contact with people we will never touch. And they’re able to service those individuals.”
With police-staffing cuts still in the budget, commissioners questioned Gimenez’s call to spend $1.4 million next year on body cameras for patrol officers.
“Of all the comments I heard over the summer . . . it was folks asking how could this be with regards to police” reductions, said Commissioner Juan C. Zapata. Pointing to the ongoing costs of the surveillance measure, he added: “I’m not convinced it’s a good policy decision to have these cameras.”
Audrey Edmonson, a commissioner whose district includes parts of Miami, complained that the announced return of seven-day schedules for Miami-Dade’s largest libraries left out Miami itself. “In the urban core, there are no libraries that will be opening on Sunday,” she said. “It’s a huge area.” Gia Arbogast, the interim library director, said the schedule released last week was just a draft. “We’re looking at restructuring and adding more Sunday hours,” she said.
While commissioners in July approved a higher rate for the county’s library tax, Gimenez rearranged his proposed budget to find the extra money needed to save about 120 police jobs in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Gimenez restored about $11 million worth of police payroll costs to the budget, according to figures from the budget office.
The revenue came from about $3 million in savings Gimenez plans to wring out of a new healthcare plan he can unilaterally offer supervisors and other non-union employees, with an additional $6.5 million coming from surplus dollars tied to 2014 tax appeals being less costly than first expected, and $1.4 million in hotel taxes originally earmarked for the Pérez Art Museum Miami. When Gimenez first unveiled the budget changes two weeks ago, the plan was to lower tax-appeal reserves for 2015, based on the 2014 results. Instead, those reserves will be funded as originally planned, Moon said.
While state law bars using hotel taxes to fund police and other core government services, Miami-Dade has in recent years sent hotel taxes to eligible expenses in the parks department and then reduced the parks budget by the same amount. That frees up funds to be spent on police and other services. With hotel taxes now tied directly to avoiding police layoffs, that $100 million funding source is getting more attention for the support it provides museums, performance centers and sports stadiums.
Several commissioners pointed to a roughly $70,000 proposed increase to each commissioner’s office budget, mainly to cover higher compensation costs required for all county employees in terms of retirement expenses and other benefits. Commissioner Sally Heyman said she would give the money back. “Put my office’s $69,000 toward saving a police officer,” she said.