Miami-Dade’s first budget hearing of the year turned into a fight over the county’s response to Hurricane Irma, with community activists faulting the government for allowing low-income residents to suffer after the storm knocked out power throughout the Miami area.
“I’m going to try and talk without crying,” Valencia Gunder, founder of Make the Homeless Smile in Miami, said during her allotted two-minute moment at the microphone during Tuesday’s late-night meeting. “It was disheartening to go into Liberty City on Tuesday morning and have a grown man cry and say he hadn’t eaten in two days.”
Gunder is affiliated with New Florida Majority, a political group that has led campaigns against Miami-Dade on labor practices and its stance on immigration detentions. It took a leading role in Tuesday’s effort to highlight an income gap in how Miami-Dade residents endured Irma, making storm response the centerpiece for a hearing on an austerity budget with cuts in transit, staff reductions at parks and long-term deficits.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez declared himself “proud” of the county’s unprecedented response to Irma, which prompted him to order the evacuation of more than 600,000 residents and the opening of dozens of shelters. “Some of things said today, that we didn’t respond to certain neighborhoods, is outrageous,” Gimenez said, noting the county distributed nearly 400,000 meals after Irma and hundreds of tons of ice. “I’m not swayed by the 50 people who came here. I’m swayed by the 2.7 million people who didn’t come here.”
The proposed transit cuts prompted a brief rejection by commissioners. While a final vote is slated for Sept. 28, a preliminary vote to approve the budget failed shortly after midnight by 6 to 7.
To salvage the proposal, Commissioner Xavier Suarez floated the idea of approving Gimenez’s budget with the requirement that transit cuts be restored by dipping into the county’s emergency reserves, but that work around wasn’t needed. Commissioner Jean Monestime switched his No vote to a Yes, and preliminary approval passed 7 to 6. Commissioners voting against the budget: Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan, Daniella Levine Cava, Joe Martinez, and Suarez.
“I think there is a clear message being sent to the administration that we’re not satisfied with the issue of transportation,” said Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo.
Even with the transit revolt by commissioners, the Irma issue sparked the most heat during the budget hearing. When a New Florida leader used her turn during public comment to criticize Gimenez by name over the county’s storm response, Bovo turned off her microphone. “Let’s be respectful,” he said.
Edmonson, whose district includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, supported the critics who chided the board. “They’re right. They’re absolutely right,” she said. “We need a better plan for the aftermath.”
Well before Irma, Gimenez’s proposed 2018 budget attracted opposition from groups wanting more funding for transit and other needs. Gimenez took office in 2011 on a promise to cut the county’s property-tax rate, and the lower taxing levels he secured in his first weeks as mayor remain largely in place. With the county’s healthcare costs rising, sales-tax collections missing targets and concerns about a coming slowdown in property-tax revenue growth, Gimenez said there was little room for spending boosts in 2018.
“When resources are limited, difficult decisions must be made,” he said. “Development of this budget has been challenging.”
A delegation of park managers took the public lecterns as a group, urging commissioners to find the money needed to make their supervisory positions full-time. Rasheeda Abdullahi works only 29 hours a week as a parks manager for the county, earning about $450 a week, “I am a part-time manager,” Abdullahi said. With budget cuts at Parks, she said patrons can arrive at parks with no manager on duty. Aside with no leadership on site, the cost-cutting effort encourages supervisors like her to find other work.
“There is no future for me to advance in the Parks and Recreation Department,” she said.
The budget reduces Metrorail funding by 6 percent, with $4.5 million in reduced service that includes longer waits for trains and reduced hours. The cuts were implemented earlier this year, and came about a year after Gimenez and other leaders rolled out the SMART Plan — an effort initially seen as a way to expand rail countywide.
Instead of pumping money into new transit projects in 2018, the county’s bus system faces an 8 percent cut, with $19 million taken out of the 2017 budget through service cuts and outsourcing of some of the least popular routes. “Mr. Mayor, I know you are committed to mass transit,” said Commissioner Jean Monestime, “but I am afraid some of us may lose faith in that commitment based on the cuts we are discussing tonight.”
Those proposed cuts attracted a string of pleas from residents who want commissioners to find money to restore the money needed to close gaps left by a downturn in both ridership and the special sales tax that subsidizes transit in Miami-Dade.
Alan Ojeda, a Miami developer who heads the transportation committee for the city’s Downtown Development Authority, said he scrapped his prepared remarks in order to relate a story of getting to the budget hearing at the Stephen Clark Government Center. He took the Metromover to the county headquarters, only to find the doors weren’t operating properly.
“We need to act like a global city. Public transit is a must,” he said. “Given what happened to me an hour ago… I beg you, please don’t cut any money.”