Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez delivered his vision for local government on Wednesday — financial stability, government transparency and key investments for the future.
In Gimenez’s fifth State of the County speech, the mayor declared, “My friends, the state of our county is strong, and together we’re making it even stronger.”
Gimenez, first elected in 2011, faces voters for re-election later this year. He has already drawn one major rival: Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado.
In a speech that alternated between English and Spanish, the mayor highlighted the 12 property tax-rate cuts that he spearheaded shortly after taking office, which he said has saved property owners about $1 billion in taxes with an average savings of $1,000.
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“Those are big savings, and I’m happy that residents got to keep more of their money.” Gimenez told the crowd assembled in the Miami-Dade County Auditorium in Miami.
A combination of depressed real estate values and the mayor’s rate cut brought a new wave of service and employee cuts in the early years of the Gimenez administration, as local governments struggled to recover from a global financial crisis and housing crash. But with property values recovered, and a 2014 boost to the county’s library tax, the budget has grown to the point that Gimenez was able to avoid austerity measures this year while touting flat tax rates and expanded services.
“Leadership requires making difficult decisions that aren’t always popular,” Gimenez said. “Today we are moving forward together in a much better direction. But our work is not done.”
He ticked off some examples of a spending turnaround: longer library hours, transportation improvements, hiring a “chief resilience officer” to combat sea-level rise, and larger budgets for animal services to reduce the numbers of stray cats and dogs that are euthanized.
Noting that “there is a lot of passion” for animals in Miami-Dade, Gimenez described significant reductions in euthanasia rates in the county’s animal shelter — with roughly 9 out of every 10 dogs and cats leaving alive. That’s up significantly from when he took office, when half of dogs and three-quarters of cats ended up euthanized, according to county statistics. (Under a practice started in 2012, stray cats are now sterilized and released back on the streets.)
The issue of shelter deaths helped drive a protest outside the speech venue, which included some of Gimenez’s long-time foes. There was a human-sized hound dog in an Uncle Sam hat holding a placard stating “A.B.C. Anyone But Carlos.” The fuzzy representative of the local Pets’ Trust advocacy group, which questions the county’s shelter statistics, joined union leaders and others waving anti-Gimenez signs to passing motorists on West Flagler Street.
“We helped put him in. And we're going to help put him out,” said Antonio Brinson, a Miami landscaper holding a placard saying, ”Mayor Gimenez doesn't give a damn about black people!”
Brinson wore a neon yellow T-shirt with a similar slogan, part of a group protesting Gimenez's redevelopment plan for the Liberty Square housing project. A crawling parade of taxi cabs honked horns before the crowd to protest the mayor’s support of pending legislation to legalize the Uber ride-hailing service. Clarence Washington, head of the county’s transit union, blamed Gimenez for a lack of progress on traffic congestion.
“Traffic is so bad because they have not put any money into transportation,” Washington said as he held a sign that said Traffi-Carlos. “As the chief administrator of the county, anything starts with him.”
Gimenez dismissed the Liberty Square protest as a bid to affect an ongoing procurement process that will eventually lead to his recommending a developer to the 13-member county commission. “You’ve got a couple of people who probably have a vested interest in who gets that project,” Gimenez said after his 10 a.m. address. “I will not be forced or intimidated into making a decision that’s not in the best interest of Miami-Dade County.”
His allies in the audience touted the speech as an example of the former Miami city manager’s ability to run government honestly. Marcelo Llorente, who ran against Gimenez in 2011, said his former opponent has been “largely successful” in bringing fiscal responsibility and transparency to county government.
“Mayor Gimenez is the most ethical and honest public servant I’ve ever been around,” said Llorente, whose lobbying and communications firm, LSN Partners, is also home to Gimenez’s top campaign consultant, Jesse Manzano-Plaza. “And those that have interacted with him over his 40 years of public service know that.”
At a press conference held at a nearby restaurant, Regalado accused Gimenez of puffing up the state of a flailing county government.
“Today, like every day, Carlos Gimenez has presented a distorted picture of Miami-Dade County,” Regalado said. “He has ignored our need for transit investment, our need for more police officers, our need for affordable housing and reliable government services. And those needs were demonstrated outside of the State of the County today.”
In his speech, Gimenez noted he raised his children in Miami-Dade — and now is helping to raise his grandchildren in the county, too. When his address turned to the spate of gun violence in the county, Gimenez called “safety and security” his top priority. “Every time an innocent child is taken from us, it’s a horrific, heartbreaking experience,” he said. “And we won’t stand for it.”
Some environmental groups have criticized Gimenez for not going far enough to address climate change, an issue that threatens Miami’s future survival. During last year’s budget debate, Gimenez responded to the criticism by adding an additional $300,000 to fund engineering studies that could help combat Miami’s rising seas.
In his address Wednesday, the mayor said he is also challenging local universities such as the University of Miami and Florida International University to use their research expertise to help find solutions to sea-level rise and climate change. FIU officials said they met with Gimenez’s office in recent months, and are in the process of figuring out what specific expertise each university brings to the table to avoid duplicating efforts.
“We know that South Florida is Ground Zero for sea-level rise,” Gimenez said.
FIU President Mark Rosenberg — one of many local power brokers who attended Gimenez’s speech — said it was noteworthy that the climate change portion was discussed relatively early, before the mayor moved on to topics such as traffic, the airport, and urban redevelopment.
“The fact that he put it at the top, I think that’s symbolic,” Rosenberg said.