Miami-Dade’s mayor proposes to cut transit funding, reduce lawn mowing and leave more than 1,000 positions open in 2018 as the county grapples with a slowing economy and a looming increase in the deductions homeowners can apply to their property tax bills.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said targeted cost cutting will allow Miami-Dade to maintain flat property tax rates at a time of rising property values but weak returns from sales taxes, a fiscal divide that has some departments awash in cash in 2018 and others grappling with shortfalls.
“We must provide critical services, but live within our means by being good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars,” Gimenez said a press conference Tuesday where he unveiled his spending proposal for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. “The development of this budget has been challenging.”
The county’s library system would add hours and spend millions more on materials under Gimenez’s proposed $7.4 billion budget, thanks to gains in the special property tax that funds the system. But the transit system is increasing the waits for Metrorail, reducing bus service and imposing other cuts as it is hit by both a decline in ridership and shortfalls in the county sales tax dedicated to transportation.
Some of the proposed cuts in transit, including shorter hours for Metrorail and longer waits for trains, are already in place. Others, like reduced bus routes, are still to come. Gimenez proposes cutting Metrorail’s budget by 6 percent to $70 million and the bus system’s budget by 8 percent to $229 million.
The development of this budget has been challenging.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez
Despite some cuts, overall spending on government operations would still increase 2.2 percent to $4.9 billion. With union contracts containing built-in pay raises and healthcare expenses on the rise, Miami-Dade needs to raise millions of dollars more in revenue each year to stay even on services. Increased spending on mosquito control to fight Zika and staffing requirements for a new animal shelter added to the budget pressures.
Miami-Dade’s Police Department lists $20 million in savings from 200 vacancies in an agency with about 4,300 payroll positions. Gimenez said the department will see an addition of 25 officers in 2018. The 2,100-person division that includes uniformed police would shrink by 13 payroll slots in order to create some administrative posts and add 11 officers to the D.A.R.E. anti-drug education program. Overall police spending would increase 5 percent to $663 million.
Miami-Dade also is planning to spend more on capital projects than what was budgeted this year. The capital budget, which funds construction, equipment purchases and other long-term spending, is proposed for $2.4 billion, up 6 percent from this year’s budget of $2.3 billion.
For the county’s 50 library branches, the 2018 budget includes a 6 percent funding boost to $75 million for daily operations. That will pay for two branches, Allapattah and Shenandoah, to move from a five-day schedule to a six-day schedule. Expanded hours are slated for branches in Coral Gables, Coral Reef, Miami Lakes and Pinecrest. The county also plans to take a $170,000 hit by eliminating overdue fines for children’s materials, spend $300,000 on after-school tutoring and boost the collections budget by 13 percent to $4.5 million.
With its own property tax, the library system was shielded from slowdowns in sales-tax collections that complicated 2018’s budget plan. The fire department also enjoys its own tax, and increases in that revenue source are funding firefighting units and trucks.
For county parks, Miami-Dade would save money by trimming the number of times it mows the lawns on athletic fields, county roadsides and in parks themselves.
The mayor’s budget proposal also includes fee hikes. Tolls on the Venetian and Rickenbacker Causeways would rise from $1.75 to $2.25. The fee for trash pickup outside of city limits, where residents rely on the county for municipal services, would increase $25 to $464. While water rates would remain flat, Gimenez wants to lower the usage thresholds for higher rates to increase revenues by 6 percent. A budget document said the typical residential customer would see water bills increase from $35 a month to $42.50 — a 21 percent increase.
Hotel taxes are in their worst slump since the Great Recession, with last year’s Zika outbreak getting some of the blame. The 2018 budget includes $16 million for anti-Zika efforts, including 42 new positions in mosquito control approved by commissioners this year. In 2018, the county plans to run 13 mosquito-spraying crews working five days a week in the winter and spring and then 20 crews working each day from May through November. Miami-Dade plans to spend about $20 million this year fighting Zika, with a significant chunk of the money coming from Florida. The county expects to spend far more if another Zika outbreak occurs during the summer mosquito season.
Miami-Dade commissioners must approve the budget, as well as Gimenez’s proposal to keep the county’s property tax rates flat. His budget proposes a maximum countywide tax rate of $970 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value — a rate of less than 1 percent. The full rate would apply to a house outside city limits relying on the county for municipal services, as well library and fire services. Even with a flat tax rate, the typical homeowner would see higher property taxes under Gimenez’s budget since property values rose this year.
Gimenez championed a cut in tax rates shortly after taking office in 2011, and those levels mostly remain intact this year.
He said Tuesday Miami-Dade does not need to raise tax rates in future years to adjust for an expected increase in Florida’s homestead deduction, which lowers the taxable value for primary residences. Florida this year approved a referendum allowing voters to boost the exemption next year, and the proposal is so popular that Miami-Dade is already budgeting a $50 million cut in revenue for 2019.
That reduction, along with a prediction of slower gains in property value, have the county budget slipping into deficit spending in 2020 under the five-year forecasts released as part of the 2018 budget. Gimenez’s 2018 budget includes a $7 million reserve fund to compensate for the expected loss in tax revenue, with separate rainy-day allocations for the fire and library systems.
The mayor said service cuts or new revenue sources will be needed to eliminate the deficits, and he was supportive of the proposed deduction boost behind the budget woes. “I will probably vote for it,” he said. “I’m a homeowner.”