While demanding bold moves on transportation, Miami-Dade commissioners early Friday approved a $15 million funding patch for transit designed to reverse recent service reductions for Metrorail and avoid future cuts for the county’s bus system.
The extra transit dollars proposed this week by Mayor Carlos Gimenez targeted the most contentious part of his proposed $7.4 billion 2018 budget, which originally preserved the shorter Metrorail hours and longer wait times for trains that his administration imposed earlier in the year. The transit cuts — including more than $2 million in reduced holiday service for bus routes — muddied the effort by county leaders to tout their pricey SMART initiative to expand transit across six commuting corridors countywide in the coming years.
“We’re talking about billions of dollars in expenses to help mobilize the workers and the citizens of this county,” said Commissioner Jean Monestime “Then we’re not willing to spend $2 million? How seriously should people take us?”
By a 12 to 1 vote, commissioners approved Gimenez’s countywide budget shortly before 3:30 am. for the fiscal year that begins Sunday. The package of spending and taxing ordinances includes higher fees for water and county trash collection and flat property-tax rates. Spending on government operations still is slated to rise 2 percent over current levels, and the budget includes a $2 million reserve for Hurricane Irma expenses that the federal government won’t cover. Commissioner Xavier Suarez cast the lone No vote.
It’s pretty clear, based on our budget and the state of our public transportation, that the people sitting up here don’t give a damn about the poor people in Miami-Dade County.
James Valsaind, addressing Miami-Dade commissioners
A late-night change in the county’s hotel-tax budget saw the commission narrowly vote to strip $550,000 from the $4 million yearly subsidy that goes to the Pérez Art Museum Miami and give it to the struggling American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami. Both museums were built with county dollars, but only the PAMM got an operating subsidy.
Before the vote, a Cuban museum staffer, Carisa Perez, said Miami-Dade’s large Cuban-American population was a reason for the county government to subsidize the nonprofit. “It’s our money,” she told commissioners. “We are not asking for anything that isn’t already ours.” The 7 to 6 vote to help the museum known as The Cuban broke along ethnic lines, with the commission’s seven Cuban-American members backing the shift and the non-Cuban members opposing it.
The funding cut follows controversy over PAMM’s exhibition of Cuban artists. Before the vote, museum director Franklin Sirmans told commissioners the exhibit, “On the Horizon: Contemporary Cuban Art,” was not funded with county dollars in the museum’s $15 million budget. “It hurts,” Sirmans said after the vote. “We’re going to lose services.”
Despite the narrow PAMM decision, the biggest controversy facing the 2018 budget was transit cuts. Gimenez offered the transit funding patch Wednesday, after his budget almost died during a preliminary vote at an earlier meeting over complaints about the service cuts. His compromise did not satisfy a string of speakers at the budget hearing that began at 5 p.m. Thursday, with members of the public faulting the board for not finding more money for transit.
The most dramatic complaint was cut short. James Valsaind took the mic shortly after 9 p.m., and began his remarks saying his mother always told him that the best way to judge a community was by its public transportation system.
“It’s pretty clear, based on our budget and the state of our public transportation,” he said, “that the people sitting up here don’t give a damn about the poor people in Miami-Dade County.”
With that, Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo ordered county police to escort Valsaind from the chambers. “Please leave,” Bovo said, citing the commission’s decorum rules. As a police officer assigned to the commission’s sergeant-at-arms staff pulled Valsaind by the arm, a spectator in the chamber yelled out: “First Amendment!”
To reverse about $5 million in Metrorail cuts and stave off future bus cutbacks slated to save $8 million, Gimenez proposed an unprecedented shift of $5.5 million in development fees from road-improvement funds to transit. More savings would come from canceling routes that overlap with city-run circulators and trolleys. Another $2.6 million was supposed to come from reducing bus service on some holidays, but Gimenez agreed after midnight to scrap the plan in favor of squeezing the Transportation Department’s budget. “I’m pretty sure I can find $2 million,” he said.
Beyond the transit issue, commissioners heard complaints about a planned reworking of a $15 million county grant program that will impose 20 to 25 percent cuts on existing recipients in order to provide new dollars for new groups recommended by a selection committee. Charities recommended to be dropped from the program would retain 75 percent of their funding, while those endorsed by the panel would get 80 percent of the recommended award.
Gina Solorzano said the $54,000 cut for the family-services organization where she works, Ayuda, will mean an abrupt reduction in what the charity can offer the community.
“I find it preposterous,” she said. “I ask you to please reconsider this injustice.”
The 2018 countywide property-tax rate of $467 per $100,000 of taxable value is down slightly from Gimenez’s first budget in 2011, when he secured a tax cut shortly after taking office after the recall of then-mayor Carlos Alvarez. The county’s other property tax rates — for debt, fire, library and municipal services outside of city limits — also remain unchanged in 2018.
With sales taxes not hitting targets, compensation costs rising and the county assuming Florida voters will approve higher property-tax deductions next year, the Miami-Dade budget for 2018 predicts deficits starting in 2020 and peaking at nearly $90 million in 2021. If property values don’t exceed expectations, Miami-Dade would need to either raise tax rates or cut services to balance future budgets.
How seriously should people take us?
Commissioner Jean Monestime
With revenues tight in the 2018 budget, commissioners spent part of Friday morning spending hypothetical money from Uber. // The discussion came a few hours after the ride-hailing company wrote Gimenez to settle on $4.3 million in county fines issued in the years before Miami-Dade legalized the service in 2016. Uber has offered up to $2.4 million cash, with the rest paid back to the company as subsidies for Uber rides to Metrorail stations and other transit hubs.
Commissioners voted Friday to commit $1 million of the potential Uber money to help the existing Children’s Museum of Miami fund air-conditioning repairs and to planning for a proposed black history museum in Miami.
The 2018 budget includes some spending boosts: The library system, which has its own property tax, will see increased hours and more after-school tutoring. Miami-Dade earmarked $1 million for planting new trees after Irma, and enough payroll dollars to boost the county’s police force by 65 patrol officers.
Despite some bright spots, Gimenez described the budget as largely the product of “difficult” decisions brought on by higher expenses and sales-tax revenues not hitting targets. The county has about 1,500 vacant positions frozen on a payroll with about 27,000 slots. To save money, Miami-Dade restricts most of its park managers to part-time schedules, keeping employees below the 30 hours required for full benefits.
Shacondra West, a park aide who earned about $18,000 last year, chastised commissioners for offering county jobs that pay so little.
“I don’t have enough money to put in gas,” she said. “I have to split $20, put in ten this week and ten the other week. And I still don’t have enough money to enjoy it. What do you all care?”
Commissioners amended the mayor’s budget to create 10 full-time positions out of money used for part-time staff, and waived a competitive-hiring rule for the payroll slots. That should give a clearer shot at the jobs for the part-time managers who spoke before the board at the hearing. The unusual accommodation drew a warning from Gimenez. “Next year, you’re going to have 700 part timers here asking for the same thing,” he said.