Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade approves $7.1 billion budget with tiny tax dip

Miami-Dade mayor Carlos A. Gimenez smiles after summoning up some of the major budget items including the expenditures for Zika and raises for county employees. Miami-Dade commissioners took their final vote on the county's 2017 budget Thursday, Sept . 22, at Stephen Clark center in Miami.
Miami-Dade mayor Carlos A. Gimenez smiles after summoning up some of the major budget items including the expenditures for Zika and raises for county employees. Miami-Dade commissioners took their final vote on the county's 2017 budget Thursday, Sept . 22, at Stephen Clark center in Miami. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Miami-Dade commissioners on Thursday approved a $7.1 billion budget with slightly lower property-tax rates and 4 percent raises for most county workers.

The pay increases stemmed from contracts Mayor Carlos Gimenez negotiated in 2014 with unions who agreed to tie raises to property values exceeding county forecasts. This year’s 9 percent boost in property-tax rolls triggered the raises, sopping up the extra tax revenue generated by the real estate boost.

“You have abided by your word from the beginning,” Commissioner Rebeca Sosa told Gimenez. “Give back, when things come back.”

The raises for a workforce with more than 25,000 employees goes to most non-union workers and all of the unions except for the two that haven’t agreed to new three-year contracts: Transit and Water and Sewer. The budget also includes an 8 percent increase in water rates for a mix of expanded water connections and funding a $14 million upgrade of the county’s sewer system in the coming years.

It takes nine ordinances to enact Miami-Dade’s three-volume budget, and a string of votes shortly after midnight brought mostly lopsided approval from the 13-member commission. The closest vote came on the ordinance implementing various fees charged residents and businesses. It passed 8 to 5, with Sosa on the No side with Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Javier Souto and Juan C. Zapata.

“We still need to do some more stuff,” said Commissioner Dennis Moss, one of the Yes votes. “But this is a good budget for now.”

The easy approval followed a string of residents urging more money for climate-change measures, non-profits, affordable housing, parks and police oversight.

While Gimenez touted what he said was $40 million worth of spending to address climate-change impacts, speakers criticized the budget as more concerned with labeling things as related to sea-level rise than in taking aggressive action to protect the county.

“As a Miamian, I am concerned I will not have a home here in the future,” said Moises Zamora, a sophomore at the University of Miami. “This is a slow-motion disaster.”

Miami-Dade shuttered its civilian review panel for the police department in 2009 during the recession, and there’s been a concerted push during this budget season to revive it.

“Some of you remember when we had a wonderful independent review panel,” former county commissioner Betty Ferguson said as the night’s first speaker. “When they looked at a situation involving police officers, no matter what their decision, the community believed in them. They trusted them.”

The administration offered no extra dollars for a civilian police panel, though officials have said it could be relaunched using existing staff and resources. Commissioner Barbara Jordan offered a late-night motion to spend $100,000 on a consultant to help shape a reconstituted board, an effort to speed the process while racial tension over a police shooting continued for a third night in Charlotte, N.C. Facing questions from Sosa and others about spending $100,000 without more debate, Jordan withdrew her motion and agreed to revisit the civilian panel at another time.

The 2017 budget keeps rates flat for the property taxes funding county operations, including fire and rescue units, libraries and municipal services provided to properties outside of city limits throughout the county. But the special property tax used to pay back voter-authorized borrowing will go down thanks to lower bond payments for 2017. Combined, they result in a dip in rates overall: from $976 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value this year compared to $971 in 2017. That’s less than a 1 percent decline.

Under state law, the budget includes what is considered a tax increase because higher real estate values are pushing property-tax revenues higher. To keep revenues flat from existing properties, Miami-Dade would have needed to drop tax rates by 8 percent.

Gimenez officials said they had no flexibility for last-minute spending boosts because of the mounting tab for fighting Zika and the mosquitoes that carry the virus. Miami-Dade estimates it faces an extra $10 million in expenses on top of the $1.5 million mosquito-control budget for the 2016 budget year, which ends Sept. 30. With only $1.7 million budgeted for the division’s operating budget in 2017, Gimenez maintains the county needs to hold back unspent dollars that normally would rollover into budget sweeteners during this time of the year.

“Zika is taking all the money,” Diaz said. “I’m hoping that maybe in six months, the money will come back and we could get it back into the community to address some needs.”

Spending on Zika framed one of the most intriguing moments of the night, as Gimenez’s challenger in the 2016 mayoral race stepped to the microphone for what was the first face-off between the two candidates since the Aug. 30 primary pushed them both into a November runoff.

Raquel Regalado used her two minutes to bash Gimenez over an issue that has become the top flashpoint in the two-person contest to lead a county currently home to the nation’s only Zika transmission zone.

The two-term school board member opposes aerial spraying of the naled insecticide on Miami Beach, a key part of the Gimenez administration’s anti-Zika fight and one endorsed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The county’s aerial spraying of naled over Miami Beach drew fierce protests and opposition from residents concerned about health risks. Regalado also questioned why Gimenez wouldn’t find more dollars for mosquito control in 2017, and use the money to launch a more comprehensive approach to on-the-ground insecticide squads and clean-up crews to tackle standing water.

“One of the reasons we need a change in Miami-Dade County is we cannot continue to go from one crisis to another crisis,” Regalado said as Gimenez, in his seat at the dais a few moments earlier, stood chatting with two aides. Naled “is not working. The science is there.”

Her comments came early in the hearing, before Gimenez and other commissioners began their budget deliberations. In a brief interview, Gimenez cited positive comments from CDC director Thomas Frieden about aerial spraying’s role in lifting the Zika transmission zone in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood.

“I think it’s highly irresponsible for someone to show complete disregard what the CDC and everyone else is telling you do,” he said. “Frankly, it’s pandering. We’re not going to put our citizens’ health at risk to score political points.”

Gimenez said his administration will continue spending whatever is needed to fight Zika, and find funds from various sources in the $7 billion budget. He said he’s expecting state and federal aid to ultimately compensate Miami-Dade for Zika expenditures, so extracting dollars from other places in the 2017 budget for mosquito control isn’t needed.

Later, Gimenez’s top foe on the county commission, Juan C. Zapata, praised Gimenez for his approach on Zika.

“You really stepped up,” Zapata said. “I think you've really dedicated the time, commitment and have shown the leadership this community needs in times of crisis.”

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