Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez sought to put the county’s budget woes behind him on Thursday as he delivered a message of prosperity and harmony ahead of a 2016 reelection campaign.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Miami-Dade County has turned the corner,” Gimenez said in a wide-ranging State of the County address that slipped between English and Spanish. “Better days are ahead because we all came together in the most difficult of circumstances.”
Known for railing against union pay perks and a bloated bureaucracy, Gimenez opened his speech by addressing Miami-Dade’s employees, who faced a 10 percent paycut in one of the mayor’s early contract proposals last year before being offered more generous terms.
“You all endured through historically challenging economic times and continued to put service to others above yourselves,” Gimenez said to county workers from the stage of a theater at Florida International University. “Let’s please give Miami-Dade County employees a well-deserved round of applause.”
Gimenez expects opposition from at least some of the county unions as he seeks reelection in 2016, and the potential challenges ahead weren’t far away during his speech. Raquel Regalado, the School Board member gearing up to run against Gimenez, sat five rows back. County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, another likely ’16 candidate, sat a few yards away in the board’s reserved seats.
Suarez offered some real-time State of the County rebuttals on his Twitter feed, noting Gimenez touted a proposed rail link between Miami and Miami Beach without identifying how to pay for it. “No funding source proposed for #Baylink or any other transportation link — just talk about our lack of mobility,” he wrote as Gimenez spoke.
Afterwards, Regalado criticized Gimenez’s cheery outlook. “The idea that the county has no financial woes is inexplicable,” she said. “We know there are challenges facing us for the new budget.”
The 45-minute speech before an estimated crowd of 500 highlighted Gimenez’s plan for a new Liberty City housing project, a pledge to ease Miami-Dade’s traffic gridlock, his push for police body-cameras, and the positive economic news coming out of the county’s port, airport and private sector.
Gimenez also offered a strong endorsement of Miami-Dade’s recent moves to expand rights for gay, lesbian and transgender residents. He supported the county’s recent ordinance establishing transgender rights, and for the first time in a speech praised a Miami-Dade judge’s landmark ruling on Jan. 5 legalizing same-sex marriage.
“I was proud to stand with commissioners who voted to protect our transgender residents in December of last year,” Gimenez said, “and welcomed the court rulings that finally gave adults the right to marry whomever they choose.”
Gimenez had a spokesman endorse the gay-marriage decision in his name when the ruling was made, and didn’t mention it when he addressed a local gay business group several weeks later. Christian Ulvert, a Democratic strategist and chairman of the gay-rights group Save, said Gimenez’s speech was a milestone for the Republican.
“In my mind, it’s the first time Mayor Gimenez has, publicly, fully embraced LGBT rights,” Ulvert said. “It was pretty remarkable.”
Gimenez’s speech gave FIU the chance to advocate for its major county issue: expanding into the adjoining Tamiami Park, current home to the Miami-Dade youth fair. FIU President Mark Rosenberg asked the crowd for “broader shoulders to carry this load” before offering Gimenez a glowing introduction. “He is our community’s chief steward of hope and opportunity,” Rosenberg said. “He championed the largest tax cut in county history during his first term of office, and his priorities remain reducing the burden on taxpayers and shrinking the size of government.”
The 2011 tax cut reversed an unpopular rate increase Gimenez’s predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, pushed through amid plummeting real estate values. The cuts required to absorb the lower taxes in 2012 brought a round of pay cuts, layoffs and service reductions that made Gimenez a top target for unions.
During last year’s State of the County address, Gimenez talked of “governing in challenging times” and a looming $200 million hole in the budget. There were no grim warnings this time, with Gimenez’s aides confident that rising property values and one-time revenue sources will let them avoid proposing drastic cuts.
“I’m confident that a tax increase in the next fiscal year will not be necessary,” Gimenez said, pointing to budget forecasts he says show revenues rising enough to cover planned expenses. “That is what ‘turning the corner’ looks like.”
The mayor now serving his fifth year of office noted the economic recovery still left Miami-Dade with widespread poverty. He cited a new initiative to raze the Liberty City housing complex and replace it with modern facilities and the Employ Miami-Dade hiring program, which brought a construction-training effort to some of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I believe that the best way out of poverty is through a good job,” he said.
Gimenez also addressed what he calls Miami-Dade’s top challenges: traffic and transit.
“Part of the growing pains we are experiencing as a community is the increasing traffic on our congested roadways,” he said. Gimenez said his administration is pursuing east-west bus corridors to speed commuting from Miami suburbs, and added he does not favor charging riders of the county’s Metromover system in Miami.
He didn’t offer an opinion on the Miami-Dade highway authority’s recent decision to expand tolling along the Dolphin Expressway. “I want to ensure that the fares being collected are allocated correctly to the benefit of this community,” he said.