Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez won praise for his 2016 budget plan on Tuesday as county commissioners applauded the lack of cuts and unanimously approved a clean-up plan for special taxing districts that include some steep fee increases for next year.
“I think the general consensus here is that this is a good budget,” said Jean Monestime, chairman of the commission. “This is a very friendly conversation.”
At this time last year, Gimenez was defending a budget defined by job cuts, service reductions and one-time revenue patches. With increased property-tax revenue and fewer complications from property-tax appeals, Gimenez in July proposed a 2016 spending plan that includes more money for parks and animal services, expanded hiring for public safety and raises for county workers left out of last year’s compensation bumps for unionized employees.
“From what I’ve seen, the budget’s pretty solid,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz. “It’s a different day.”
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Commissioners face the first of two budget votes Thursday, but Tuesday’s meeting included a round of comments on Gimenez’s $6.8 billion proposal for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The mayor still hit some resistance from commissioners, with questions raised on library hours, long-term transit funding and police staffing.
“I doesn’t sound as if we’re getting any new positions” in the police department, said Commissioner Barbara Jordan. The Gimenez budget shows flat police staffing for 2016, but Gimenez said new cadet classes will be used to fill 100 vacant slots. “You’re getting new bodies,” he said.
Xavier Suarez, a county commissioner also considering a run against Gimenez in 2016, criticized the consequences of past spending cuts to the library system under the mayor’s tenure. “We gutted the library system of Miami-Dade three years ago,” Suarez said. “We still have some libraries that don’t open on Saturdays.”
The Gimenez budget moves 10 libraries from five-day to six-day schedules and pumps new dollars into buying books and acquiring electronic materials. The budget also includes $1 million for police body cameras, funding for a second county fire boat and beefed-up spending on elections to allow a 50 percent increase in the number of early-voting sites for the 2016 presidential election.
In a separate discussion, commissioners unanimously approved new fee schedules for more than 1,000 special taxing districts that provide lighting services, lawn maintenance and security to communities and subdivisions. The county’s Public Works department supervises the districts, and this spring revealed what it described as chronic accounting problems that led to years of flawed bills. Some districts face fee hikes in 2016 to compensate for shortfalls caused by under-billing in prior years.
“The problem was pretty deep, and it ran for a lot of years,” Gimenez told commissioners.
Before the vote, residents criticized Miami-Dade for forcing them to pay to clean-up past errors. “We the taxpayers should not have to pay for a mistake by Miami-Dade County,” said Brenda Merrill, a resident of the Morningside district, where fees are increasing about $1,000 next year.
Commissioners had urged the administration to devise installment payments for the higher fees, but were told state law restricted the county’s ability to delay required fees to cover district expenses. A county lawyer on Tuesday said a districtwide vote would be needed for that sort of change, but that there wasn’t time to hold a referendum ahead of the 2016 fiscal year.
The statement prompted complaints from commissioners that they would have pursued a vote if they’d known that was an option. “I am disturbed to have learned that that would have been a possibility,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava. Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said votes were “not possible given the timeline we are working under.”