Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez dropped his second hint this week that his new budget proposal might change to include both higher spending and a lower tax rate.
“The tax rate will remain flat for now,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald Editorial Board on Thursday. “I said ‘for now’ because we’re still going to work on this budget, like we did last year.”
A push for a cut in property-tax rates would likely set up a fight with the more liberal wing of the 13-member county commission, which has pressured Gimenez to expand county services and reverse past spending cuts. In a statement this week, Commission Chairman Jean Monestime cheered the switch from Gimenez’s past austerity budgets.
“The Proposed Budget appears to respond to calls by the County Commission to improve the quality of various services to our residents,” Monestime wrote. “That’s a good start.”
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Gimenez faces reelection next year. A resurgent real estate market handed him a much rosier revenue picture than his budget team had forecast for 2016. The county started the year projected a 5.5 percent increase in taxable value for 2016, but figures released July 1 put the gain at 9.4 percent.
His proposed budget keeps Miami-Dade’s tax rates flat at $976 for every $100,000 of taxable value. (That includes taxes that not all property owners pay: unincorporated services, fire and library.) When he unveiled it at a press conference Tuesday, Gimenez hinted that he planned to either add spending or cut the tax rate.
“We expect things to get better,” he said at the PortMiami event. “We hope that, by our first budget hearing in September, our budget message will actually be improved.”
Gimenez was elected in 2011 on the promise of a tax cut, and his first budget cut the rate 12 percent (and reversed a tax increase passed the prior year in the midst of a housing crash). His budgets emphasized efficiency and payroll savings, and services were rolled back throughout Miami-Dade. His 2016 budget seeks to ease those cuts: County crews will cut the grass more often on roadsides and parks, the fire department gets another boat, and there’s more money to clean buses.
Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava is pushing Gimenez to find money to avoid higher fees for hundreds of special taxing districts that were subject to under-billing in recent years. She questioned why Miami-Dade should cut the property tax rate — known as the “millage” rate — when the lost revenue could be used elsewhere.
“I don’t know what the public outcry is for lowering the millage,” she said. “I do know the people in special taxing districts want relief. I would like to see that relief granted first.”
Last year, Gimenez proposed a 2015 budget with a string of lay-offs and spending cuts. At the time, he was demanding concessions from unions to avoid the austerity measures. Unions mostly held firm on compensation, and Gimenez ultimately dropped many of the austerity measures by the time he presented his final budget recommendation to commissioners in September.
This time, Gimenez proposed a budget with spending increases across departments and $5 million left over for emergency reserves. But needs remain. While 10 libraries are getting an extra day of service, most will remain closed at least one day. Parks administrators noted they still need money to provide more after-school and summer activities. The police union argues it needs more money to restore past staffing cuts.
On Thursday, Gimenez touted new dollars for synchronizing traffic lights on county roads, expanded funding for jobs programs, and a new analysis of Miami-Dade’s transit tax that sees an extra $2 billion to spend through 2045. He said he’s joining a delegation traveling to Denver next month to see how that city funded an expansion of light rail.
The transit tax was passed in 2002 on a promise to expand Metorail west and north, but elected officials soon declared the original plan too flawed to deliver. Gimenez said that even newfound dollars won’t provide enough cash to fund extra track for Metrorail, given how expensive “heavy” rail is to build. He said his priority would be to create a mass transit system between Miami to the western suburbs.
“I’m not married to a mode,” he said. “I know what it’s not going to be. It’s not going to be Metrorail. That’s too expensive.”