Miami-Dade County

At budget hearing, calls to revive county’s police oversight board

A patch showing the Miami-Dade Police Department’s insignia.
A patch showing the Miami-Dade Police Department’s insignia. Miami Herald File

As Miami-Dade expands its body-camera program for police, activists are calling for more dollars to fund a civilian oversight panel for county officers.

Calls for reviving a board shuttered during the depths of the recession emerged as the most common request Thursday during the first of two hearings for Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed $7.1 billion budget for 2017. Advocates argued that increased concern about police misconduct and general community friction with law enforcement should make the board a funding priority for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

“We need to let the community know you’re not looking the other way,” said Ian Ward, a county public defender and son of a police officer. “I’ve heard the issues that law enforcement deals with on a day-to-day basis. I know the stress. But that’s not a reason for us to look the other way.”

Miami already has a civilian oversight panel for its police department, created in 2002 after a string of high-profile shootings. They’re common throughout the country, and generally consist of civilian boards investigating alleged police misconduct. Miami-Dade spent about $600,000 a year on its civilian panel before disbanding it in 2009. In a memo issued this week, Gimenez said police officials were reviewing the best way to reform the panel.

The memo didn’t dissuade a string of speakers to urge a quick revival, part of a chorus requesting more dollars in the new budget. Advocates for arts, parks, jobs training and fighting sea-level rise urged Gimenez and the 13-member commission to find more money for their causes. Gimenez has already pointed to an extra $10 million Miami-Dade had to spend combating Zika in 2016 as sapping extra funds that might otherwise be available to sweeten the budget.

Though a 9 percent spike in property values sent real estate taxes soaring above forecasts, that extra $105 million went to fund the 4 percent raises for county workers negotiated in earlier union contracts. Combined with higher healthcare expenses, the raises cost roughly $123 million for county departments funded by property taxes.

For his final budget before facing reelection in 2016, Gimenez proposed a slight dip in property-tax rates, which would shift from a maximum of $976 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value to $971 per $100,000.

“I know there is no perfect budget,” said Commissioner Javier Souto. “But I think this one is good for us.”

Gimenez touted the budget as evidence of Miami-Dade’s improving fortunes, with expanded library hours, $46 million for the new $300 million Liberty Square affordable-housing complex, $40 million for syncing traffic lights, 40 new police officers and $1.2 million for police body cameras. This budget “reflects my priority to ensure our children and grandchildren will have a safe, vibrant and financially sound community,” Gimenez said. “This budget will greatly enhance the quality of life for all Miamians.”

The budget also details revenue gaps: 140 unfilled positions in the police department, a parks budget that lists $23 million in unmet needs and a decline in transit-fare dollars that are causing budget officials to rewrite revenue forecasts for future expansion plans.

Gimenez faced criticism at the hearing for moving slow on combating sea-level rise, with critics noting $300,000 budgeted in 2016 for studying the issue wasn’t spent. Gimenez added another $500,000 to the study budget for 2017.

“Does action start 60 days from today? Or four years from today?” asked Maggie Fernandez, an advocate for more climate-change spending. “I say action starts today.”

Commissioners won’t make final votes on the budget until after the second budget hearing on Sept. 22. The first budget hearing brought more than 60 speakers but never saw all of the seats filled in the commission chamber’s spectator galley — far from the packed houses of the divisive years when the recession and Gimenez’s 2012 property-tax cut brought austerity budgets.

Banker Adolfo Henriques, head of the county’s Cultural Affairs Council, urged commissioners to boost arts spending in order to make up for cuts from past years. “The county’s culture and arts budget is millions of dollars less than it was 10 years ago,” he said. “ The arts community greatly suffered in the past decade from effects of cuts in county grants and reduced private-sector giving.”

Trelvis Randolph, a lawyer, made a similar argument in pressing for the police oversight panel’s revival. He noted budget pressures helped doom it during the recession, and it was time for economic expansion to bring it back.

“The time is now,” he said. “We have money.”

John Rivera, president of the county’s police union, said there’s no need for the panel. “I think it’s foolish,” Rivera said. “It was a showpiece that was just draining taxpayers’ money.”