Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has a decision to make: Should he accept the small but significant millage increase to benefit county libraries or veto the County Commission’s 8-to-5 vote? Smart politics and doing the right thing say that the mayor should accept the overwhelming public support for additional funding of the library system and call it a good day.
Mayor Gimenez needs it.
It’s the final budget that he opposes: “This budget is the worst-case scenario and not the budget I’m fighting for,” he says. “The budget I would like to see ultimately approved by the commission would preserve essential services, not result in transit fare increases and maintain the same number of employees throughout the county. This can be achieved if we continue the concessions agreed to in 2011.”
If he can win this round against the unions, Gimenez will find his real challenge against a more relentless and formidable group: library supporters. The mayor got most of what he wanted as commissioners chose to maintain the tax rates for everything other than libraries from the previous year. In essence, it is a recognition that Gimenez’s contention regarding the growth in costs of benefits and pensions, particularly to police and firefighters, is untenable. All sides will need to sit down and find a proper solution to a problem that is not unique to the nation’s fourth-largest county; almost all municipalities are struggling to find greater efficiencies and garner concessions from unions. The mayor and union leaders are going to have to find agreement on furloughs, flex pay and other benefits in order to save nearly all of the jobs slated for termination, which the police and fire departments have identified as important to retain.
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Rightfully, in Miami-Dade County, the commission decided that the budget increase needs to be minimal in a community where many residents live on fixed incomes and struggle with the rising cost of living. Nonetheless, the increase is necessary, and concessions have to come from all areas of the county. The county library system has made them in the past; our libraries have already paid their dues. Now other departments need to take their turn.
Three years ago, $3 million was taken from the library fund and transferred to the fire department. Today, the shoe is on the other foot as the fire department sees that same dollar amount shift back into the library system. In fact, in 2013, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue fared better than others. The millage rate in 2010 for firefighters was 2.1851 but in 2013 it increased to 2.4496, a 12.1-percent increase. Not bad.
Library advocates are intelligent, vocal and reliable voters. They are a true grass-roots organization composed of a cross-section of voters who believe that libraries are the cornerstone of our democracy and and indispensable investment in the community. Gimenez has not understood this group or the importance of libraries. A library is more than an iPad although much of the content has origins found in libraries. He is correct, however, that Miami-Dade libraries need to evolve into the 21st century, just as other cities have done, like Chicago, for instance.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not start out as a library advocate; to the contrary, he also tried to gut the system to pay for other municipal needs. Unable to reach an agreement with library unions, Emanuel laid off 172 of their employees and 76 branches were temporarily closed on Mondays.
Ultimately, both compromised and Emanuel brought in Brian Bannon, the chief information officer of the San Francisco libraries, to take over the system in Chicago. For all of the problems facing Chicago, this was one very smart decision. They are reducing the digital divide and increasing digital literacy.
Gimenez has the chance to do the same here. We need a national search to replace retiring Raymond Santiago to bring a new leadership that will take a fresh look at current needs and potential. Smart policy makers know how to invest for the future of their communities, even when the investment is painful. If the final budget agreement doesn’t make anybody 100-percent happy, it’s likely to be the best the county can get.
Mayor Gimenez should forget the veto for additional library funds so that Miami-Dade can move forward, too.