Miami-Dade County

Fix transit, but don’t bust the budget, says Miami-Dade mayor

Miami-Dade County commisioners Esteban Bovo Jr., Joe Martinez, Dennis Moss and Xavier Suarez react as Mayor Carlos Gimenez (not pictured) speaks to the audience on the day newly elected or re-elected officials were sworn in.
Miami-Dade County commisioners Esteban Bovo Jr., Joe Martinez, Dennis Moss and Xavier Suarez react as Mayor Carlos Gimenez (not pictured) speaks to the audience on the day newly elected or re-elected officials were sworn in. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

As it pursues an ambitious transit plan amid the best budget picture in years, Miami-Dade must resist the kind of over-spending that can cause a revenue squeeze on taxpayers, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Tuesday in his first major address after winning reelection.

“We must focus on doing even more. To improve our quality of life while continuing to hold the line on overall tax rates,” Gimenez told an audience of about 500 people during an installation ceremony for him and seven county commissioners who won elections in 2016. “We will not let our ship veer off course. Not under our watch. Not ever again.”

Gimenez’s words of budgetary caution come on the heels of a reelection effort that touted significant transportation spending over the next four years. He made a campaign centerpiece out of the county’s so-called SMART transportation plan, which promises to expand rapid transit countywide but has yet to fill in major financial blanks regarding how to pay for it.

Those details will determine the timing and scope of whatever rail or high-speed bus lines Miami-Dade could pursue under the plan, setting up a debate that could define Gimenez’s final term in an office he’s held since 2011. Urgency on gridlock and expanding rail options beyond the 22-mile Metrorail system that opened in 1984 formed a common thread through Tuesday’s speeches at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium in Miami.

“I am truly optimistic, probably for the first time since 1984 — that’s a long time — about the expansion that will happen for our rail system,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who faced no opposition in her election to a fourth four-year term on the 13-member board representing District 1, a northern area that includes Miami Gardens. “If we stick together as a commission, and not go our separate ways … we can get these corridors done.”

We will not let our ship veer off course. Not under our watch. Not ever again.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Tuesday’s ceremony marked a milestone in county elected politics, since it’s the first time that county commissioners were sworn in under a term-limit cap approved by voters in 2012. The two-term restriction kicked in that year, making this the second and final term allowed for commissioners reelected in 2016. (Commissioners reelected in 2014 can run a final time in 2018 before being termed-out in 2022.)

Term limits already exist for mayors, and Gimenez said his final four years would be focused on transit, economic development and the prevention of youth violence.

Gimenez, a former Miami city manager, took office in 2011 to replace Carlos Alvarez, a mayor recalled in part over a property-rate hike imposed during Miami-Dade’s worst real estate crisis since the 1930s. Gimenez undid the tax hike and won approval of a series of austerity budgets that cut services, positions and employee pay. As the housing market prospered again, Miami-Dade revenues returned and Gimenez was able to run on budgets that reversed past cuts, expanded some services and boosted worker pay.

While Gimenez faced a November runoff against school board member Raquel Regalado, this year’s commission contests were all decided in the August primaries. Five other incumbents — Bruno Barreiro, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Audrey Edmonson, Dennis Moss and Xavier Suarez — won through lopsided victories or in races without challengers.

The one exception was Joe Martinez, a veteran commissioner who gave up his seat in 2012 for an unsuccessful mayoral run against Gimenez. Martinez filed for his old seat in District 11, a western region centered around the Kendall suburbs, challenging incumbent Juan C. Zapata. But when Zapata dropped out of the race, Martinez cruised to an easy win in the Aug. 30 primary.

Though the only newly elected commissioner on stage, Martinez showed no signs of keeping a low profile. When he took his place behind the lectern for his speech, the house lights turned on so that Martinez could introduce his new district staff. Then he removed the wireless microphone from its stand and walked the stage, at times showing his back to the audience in order to directly address the commissioners and mayor behind him.

I am truly optimistic, probably for the first time since 1984 — that’s a long time — about the expansion that will happen for our rail system.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan

“For many years we have been talking about transit,” said Martinez, who served 12 years on the commission, including two stints as chairman. “I’m glad we’re going to start doing something about transit. Because if we don’t, ‘we the people’ are going to be tired, and something is going to explode.”

In his remarks, Gimenez paired Miami-Dade’s traffic woes with its economy, arguing that a prosperous county brings with it congestion.

“If we don’t have a vibrant economy, we don’t have a transportation problem,” he said. “Transportation issues — and how we solve those transportation issues — is going to be one of our top priorities in the next four years. This challenge isn’t easy. And it won’t be solved overnight. But it’s something we have to do for our children, and our grandchildren.”

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