Miami-Dade commissioners closed the door on higher property-tax rates for 2016, though the debate continues about whether the county can afford a tax cut amid soaring home values.
Tuesday’s lopsided vote was just a prelude to the budget process set to unfold this summer, as commissioners and Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrangle over how to spend the nearly $7 billion that Florida’s largest local government is set to raise in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Gimenez said he might propose a lower property-tax rate by the time he finalizes his proposed budget in September. Some commissioners are arguing for maximum funding to expand services, while others said residents deserve to pocket some of the county’s current windfall.
“I’m pleased to see a lot of what I was looking for is being funded,” Commissioner Audrey Edmonson said. “Unfortunately, many of these enhancements are just a restoration of services to where they were years ago.”
Said Commissioner Juan C. Zapata: “It’s time to give at least some of this money back to the taxpayers. Around here, we always like to spend when times are good.”
If the property-tax rate remains flat, many people will likely see higher tax bills because of the increased value of their property, though the county budget office said that increase would be limited to less than 1 percent in 2016 for homeowners who are covered under Save Our Homes, which caps annual increases in the assessed value of a home to either inflation or 3 percent.
Miami-Dade must approve a proposed tax rate for the budget notices that go out next month. Because of notification requirements laid out in state law, commissioners are free to lower the rates when the final budget is adopted in September. But setting higher rates would trigger a second countywide mailing considered so daunting and costly that commissioners treated Tuesday’s rate-cap vote as their only opportunity to raise taxes.
No commissioner argued for that option, and the flat-rate legislative package passed with only Zapata voting against the resolutions involving two countywide property taxes: one for funding general government and one that pays debt service on voter-authorized borrowing.
With the vote, Miami-Dade would charge a maximum of $976 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value, which is the same levy as this year. That includes the countywide rate of $467 and the countywide debt tax of $45 for every $100,000, along with four taxes that are charged only to a portion of the county’s properties: metropolitan services for unincorporated areas ($193 per $100,000), fire services ($242), library ($28) and fire-services debt ($1).
Before the commission vote, members of the public had the chance to address the 13-member panel over the proposed rates. Most of the comments came from animal advocates dressed in red, representatives of the so-called Pets’ Trust movement. That was the name given the proposed special property-tax for the county’s animal services, which voters endorsed in a non-binding ballot question in 2012. Commissioners declined to adopt the special tax, and Pets Trust leaders rally supporters each year during the budget process for dedicated revenue.
“Are you telling me don’t bother to vote?” asked Mary Roy, 18 and a recent high school graduate in Miami. “We’re here to tell you these animals need funding.”
The Gimenez budget increases Animal Services funding 5 percent to $17.4 million.
“Our community has repeatedly voiced its support here, and at the ballot box, for our animals. For our pets,” Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava said. “We must be sure to put the significant resources required to ending the pet-overpopulation problem as soon as possible.”
Rising property values are forecast to give Miami-Dade significantly more revenue in 2016, in part thanks to new construction and in part thanks to collecting more tax money from existing real estate. If Miami-Dade wanted to generate the same amount of property-tax revenue as in 2015 from existing real estate, it would need to charge about $59 less per $100,000 of value, according to county estimates. That lower rate is known as the roll-back rate, as defined by state law.
Gimenez’s proposed $6.8 billion budget includes a roster of expanded services, including longer operating schedules for some libraries, an extra fireboat on Biscayne Bay, restored compensation benefits for nonunion workers, more grass mowing at parks and roadsides, and new cadet classes for the county’s police, fire and corrections departments. It also would add $5 million to the county’s emergency reserve.
Facing reelection in 2016, Gimenez has portrayed his budget as vindication of his five-year tenure, which began in 2011 with his reversal of a tax hike designed to buffer Miami-Dade from a collapsed housing market. Critics, including mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado, cast the budget as Gimenez trying to take credit for easing the problems his own austerity measures created.
The current budget also benefited from a surge in property values, and Gimenez began last year’s process by proposing deep staffing cuts. The outlook became rosier throughout the summer of 2014, and the mayor dropped most of the severe service and staffing reductions by the time commissioners adopted the 2015 budget.
In recent remarks, Gimenez suggested the 2016 budget outlook could improve enough to allow for expanded services or a possible tax-rate cut. On Tuesday, he reiterated that his budget proposal is bound to change before commissioners vote on the spending plan.
“My administration will continue to work throughout the summer to determine if there are other savings we can identify or if we can enhance services without raising the overall tax rate,” he said.