City leaders gave preliminary approval Thursday to a budget that would increase spending by 10 percent and once again invest millions more into public safety.
After what was easily the most tranquil budget hearing in nearly a decade, commissioners voted unanimously to keep the city's operating tax rate flat and fund a $615 million general fund. With the extra money generated by a 13 percent citywide increase in property values, they'll look to hire more police and improve pay and benefits for officers and firefighters.
In doing so, commissioners signaled they plan to reject some aspects of Mayor Tomás Regalado's proposed budget, namely $15 million for capital projects funded through the general fund. Regalado began the hearing by urging commissioners to consider what he called a reasonable proposal.
“Like all budgets, there may be controversy and debate, but I believe this is a functional budget,” said Regalado, who had altered his budget last week to increase the police force by 40 cops.
But Commissioner Marc Sarnoff followed Regalado’s brief speech with a lengthy power point presentation that argued that Miami has a woeful “clearance rate” for violent crimes, meaning that they ended in an arrest and criminal charge. He warned about looming police department retirements, including some 100 in September 2017 alone. He also warned the city will be competing with Miami-Dade County around that time to recruit officers, arguing that the county offers better compensation.
“We're going to be fishing in a similar pond,” he said.
Meanwhile, the police union wants a new contract that they say would cost the city $20 million. And the firefighters union is still negotiating a new contract after their old deal expired almost a year ago. Both were hit hard in 2010 by unilateral cuts imposed to save the city from a $100 million budget hole, although some of that has been restored through new deals.
Commissioners have a special session set for Monday to talk about the two contracts.
“It’s not about hiring more police,” Regalado said after the hearing ended. “It’s about paying them.”
Commissioners ended the night without approving Regalado's amended budget proposal to add 40 more officers, leaving ambiguous how many more officers they'll include in the budget and how much money they'll allocate to increased salaries. But they said they believe both are necessary, citing other departments’ compensation and homicide clearance rates that The Herald reported Wednesday have dropped over the last three years to 41 percent for homicides.
Still, Thursday’s hearing was undoubtedly the calmest in Regalado’s tenure as mayor, which began in 2009. Few members of the public spoke. And despite threats that City Manager Daniel Alfonso’s job could be on the line over concerns of violent crime and shootings, the topic never came up. Fernand Amandi, a pollster from South Coconut Grove who had most aggressively pushed the issue, showed up Thursday but left before his name was called to speak on the budget.
With more money than ever before, Regalado has proposed once again that the city make permanent hundreds of part-time employees in the parks department, giving them better pay and benefits. His administration is also bracing for rising debt costs starting in 2017, and increased costs due to a new city law that city contractors pay their workers a responsible wage. Credit agencies also have warned that Miami’s pension costs remain relatively high.
Regalado wants to replace hundreds of city vehicles, including 300 used by police, and allocate $1.5 million for a transportation trust fund proposed by Commissioner Francis Suarez to begin stockpiling money for mass transit initiatives. Altogether, his operating and capital budget reach $958 million.
Commissioners will reconvene Sept. 24 for a second and final vote on the budget.
In other business
- Commissioners ratified a one-year agreement with the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust negotiated this summer after months of acrimony between Trust Chairman and uber-lobbyist Ron Book and Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. Under the agreement, which replaces an outdoor mat program at Camillus House’s Northwest Seventh Avenue headquarters, the city and Homeless Trust will each fund 75 shelter beds, half of which are reserved for Miami’s homeless men and women.
- The city inked an agreement with Miami-Dade County to open a police office in the heart of Liberty Square.
- The city settled a long-running lawsuit with Rickenbacker Marina Inc., with the tenant paying Miami $750,000.
- Commissioners gave tentative approval to a proposal to repeal legislation allowing billboard towers in the Omni redevelopment district, and tentative approval to a special zoning plan for the roughly 2,000-unit Miami Riverwalk project.