Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez won easy approval Tuesday for a slight dip in property-tax rates for 2017 amid citizens’ pleas for more park funding and news that there’s enough money to raise water rates a bit less than expected.
“You disarmed me,” Commissioner Barbara Jordan, often an advocate for additional county spending, told Gimenez. “I love this budget.”
The County Commission’s unanimous endorsement of Gimenez’s proposed ceiling on tax rates came after a string of speakers called for a larger parks budget to let the department catch up on maintenance and provide the free summer camps and sports leagues that it offered before the recession.
“In the last six or seven years, I have witnessed countless layoffs,” said George Parrado, a recently retired senior administrator in the parks department. “We all know that great parks make great communities. And all of our children deserve better.”
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Tuesday’s meeting was just the first step in the summer-long approval process for Gimenez’s $7.1 billion budget, his last before facing reelection on Aug. 30. Commissioners can still approve lower property-tax rates but essentially yielded their ability to impose anything higher, establishing a limit on how much Miami-Dade can spend in the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
Carol Hardemon, who runs a high-school track program, said park fees have families forced to decide how much recreation their children can afford. “Parents have a choice between paying the light bill or paying for kids to play in the park,” said Hardemon, who worked nearly 40 years for the county’s parks department. “The light bill is going to win every time.”
The comments came during an organized effort by park advocates to press for more funding of a parks budget that remains mostly flat in a year when property values surged 9 percent. To free up property-tax dollars to be used elsewhere, the Gimenez administration plugged an extra $7 million of hotel taxes into the 2017 parks budget. Spending on parks is set to grow less than 1 percent for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, and the $173 million agency budget lists about $23 million in unmet needs.
Administration officials said a 4 percent raise for county workers this year has kept other spending flat across the government, and that the delayed maintenance dates back years before Gimenez took office in 2011. The parks budget includes special taxing districts in which neighborhoods pay for landscaping. If those districts’ revenues and expenses are removed, the 2017 operating budget increases about 5 percent.
Park complaints dominated the tax-rate hearing, which started with about 50 children in green T-shirts bearing the #protectparks hashtag urging commissioners to keep youth programs at the Colonial Drive park in Miami. The uniforms and accompanying buttons came from the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade, which raises donations for the department.
Afterward, Gimenez said his staff would explore ways to reduce the cost of recreational programs for young park users. “The fees are one of the things we’re going to be working on,” he said. “We want to have as many kids as possible take advantage of the parks.”
Commissioners still must take final votes on the property rates, as well as approve Gimenez’s budget itself — a process that typically brings skirmishes over specific line items, expenses and fees. When he first proposed his 2017 budget earlier this month, Gimenez announced water fees would soar 9 percent — far higher than the 5 percent hike forecast a year ago. On Tuesday, Gimenez announced 2017 rates would rise 8 percent instead and his administration will “work on” lowering the increase more in the coming months.
The mayor’s election-year budget keeps most of the county’s property-tax rates flat, but two taxes tied to debt payments are slated to decline enough to let the overall tax rate drop by less than 1 percent.
While properties that sit within cities pay less to the county, the maximum rate for 2017 amounts to $971 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value. The maximum rate sits at $976 this year. But with property values rising, most property owners will end up paying more. Using calculations mandated by the state’s “rollback-rate” law, Miami-Dade would need to cut its property-tax levy (known as a “millage”) by 8 percent to keep current real estate owners from paying more to the county.
“At the end of the day, a flat millage rate is a tax increase,” said Commissioner Juan C. Zapata. “I’m hopeful that we will reduce it when the final numbers come out.”