Environmentalists slammed Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez for only a passing mention of sea-level rise in his proposed 2016 budget and urged county leaders to make the problem a priority by dedicating tax dollars toward the issue.
At a hearing for a $6.8-billion budget that eases past spending cuts for libraries, charity grants, worker pay, parks and public safety, one speaker after another stepped to the microphone to criticize a lack of urgency by Miami-Dade toward the local consequences of climate change.
“In this three-volume budget, there is one mention of sea-level rise,” Maggie Fernandez, of the League of Women Voters, told county commissioners during the evening meeting. “This has to be a joke. Given that we’re Ground Zero for climate change.”
A PDF search of the Gimenez budget seemed to confirm the talking point: The phrase “sea-level rise” only appears once in the plan, on Page 265 of Volume 3. Even then, it’s on a list of “unfunded capital projects.” Officials said protecting coastal parks from higher seas would cost $175 million, but those funds aren’t in the budget.
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Miami has earned global attention as the major U.S. city whose future is most in question by rising seas. The wave of critical comments came the same day that Gimenez, a Republican, was invited by the White House to attend a climate-change summit later this month in Los Angeles. In January, commissioners passed a series of resolutions tied to an earlier climate-change report, and speakers criticized Gimenez for not moving on the recommendations.
“Is there really no money currently in the entire proposed budget for addressing one of the most defining issues of my generation?” asked Miami resident David McDougal.
Gimenez told commissioners he’s looking forward to the climate-change event to gain expertise from national experts and other municipalities. “We have to decide what our methodology is,” he said. “What do we need?”
Commissioners gave initial approval for the Gimenez budget in a preliminary vote Thursday, with the final decision scheduled after the second hearing on Thursday, Sept. 17.
Gimenez took office in 2011 and pushed through a 12-percent cut in property-tax rates that triggered a string of spending cuts as Miami-Dade’s housing market slowly recovered from an historic crash. Gimenez points to his 2016 budget as vindication, with property-tax rates still flat but revenues rising. Real estate values are up more than 9 percent this year, and Gimenez entered the 2016 budget process with an extra $120 million in property taxes.
“We had to put this county on sustainable path,” he said. “That took some pain.”
Speakers praised Gimenez for expanding hours at some libraries, a 10-percent hike in parks’ spending overall, increasing the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s subsidy from $2.7 million to $3.7 million, and providing new funding for the Ludlam Trail and Underline urban parks.
“This is obviously a good budget,” Commissioner Dennis Moss told Gimenez. “A testament to that is you had so few people come to complain. This seems like a very good year. We’re starting to turn the corner.”
While spending is up, the budget still shows strain. The five-year forecast for countywide expenses from property taxes and other fees shows a shortfall starting in 2018. On the list of unmet needs, the Parks department noted it needs more money for after-school programs. Some commissioners also questioned why the extra dollars in 2016 couldn’t be used to reduce tax rates.
“It’s great that we’ve had a wonderful year,” said Commissioner Juan C. Zapata. “Just because there’s more money doesn’t mean we have an automatic right to spend all of it.”
The Gimenez budget reverses a 10-percent reduction in county charity grants for 2016, but only until Miami-Dade launches a competitive process for the money in the spring. Several nonprofits implored commissioners to expand funding for their organizations, saying Miami-Dade’s low-income residents need more help than the 2016 budget provides.
“We are seeing a new breed of homelessness in Miami-Dade County — where you have mother, father and the children. This is new in our county,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, which is seeking county help in securing a larger facility. “Sometimes we don’t have the space to provide services to everyone.”
Commissioners made no changes to Gimenez’s proposed budget before taking their preliminary votes. The 10 ordinances needed to adopt the budget mostly passed easily, with the only close votes coming on funding for charity grants and rates for the special taxing districts that were part of a billing mishap this year. Both passed by two-vote margins by the 13-member board.
A Gimenez aide told commissioners that the administration is still formulating the details of an action plan tied to the recommendations of the climate-change task force. Nichole Hefty, head of the county’s Office of Sustainability, said Miami-Dade has already spent $7 million studying the potential of salt-water intrusion into the county’s reservoirs.
“This is a very challenging and difficult issue to handle,” Hefty said. “So we want to make sure we are being very thoughtful.”
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who championed the January climate-change resolutions, said she didn’t want to let studies delay action.
“We can be planning. But we cannot lose time,” she said. “Because sea level rise is here. And it’s here to stay.”