Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade mayor flips on property-tax rate hike, will cut services instead

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Monday backed off entirely from a property-tax rate hike he had proposed a mere six days earlier, saying dissatisfied commissioners and angry residents prompted him to change his mind.

On Tuesday, Gimenez will recommend that commissioners keep most portions of the property-tax rate flat, increasing only the part that pays for big-ticket construction projects approved by voters.

“People are not in favor of any increased taxes, in any way, shape or form,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald. “I’m not deaf. I can hear the sentiment.”

As a result of his reversal, the mayor’s administration outlined deep cuts and 400 layoffs at fire-rescue and library services, two departments that will be the most directly affected by not raising the tax rate.

The worst-case scenario would require eliminating six fire units and laying off 149 fire-rescue workers. An administrative reorganization would eliminate two division chiefs, 14 chief fire officers and a number of civilian jobs. Sworn firefighters working in administrative roles would be returned to responding to service calls.

As for libraries, 10 storefronts and up to 12 branch libraries would be shut down, and operating hours reduced across the board. There would be 251 layoffs.

The cuts may not wind up being that steep, depending on other savings the county may find between now and the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. The cuts would require approval from commissioners, who are likely to push for scaled-back trims in their districts.

Fire-rescue and library services are funded from property taxes separate from the general fund. Their budgets faced a hole this year because they had been operating the past two years using leftover funds from years prior.

In a letter Monday, Rowan Taylor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1403, urged commissioners to approve the higher fire-rescue tax rate.

“The Fire Department has been quietly operating on bare bones for the past few years,” he wrote.

But displeased commissioners had asked Gimenez to provide alternatives to the tax-rate hike, which the mayor initially proposed at 5.37 percent, including fully funding a $19 million plan voters approved in a non-binding straw ballot last year to stop killing cats and dogs at the county’s shelter.

He later lowered the increase to 4.34 percent, doing away with the animal-welfare portion but trying to maintain fire-rescue and library services.

The amended plan was still met with resistance from commissioners. Half of the board faces reelection next year.

“For me, raising taxes is not an option,” Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said Monday before Gimenez released his updated proposal.

She made an exception for the separate portion of taxes — not controlled by elected officials — that pays for projects voters approved in a major bond issue a decade ago.

With that portion of the tax rate going up, and because of higher property values, many residents will still see an increase in their county taxes, but it will be far smaller than what Gimenez had originally proposed.

Gimenez said he changed his position after listening to callers on radio, reading emails from residents and receiving calls opposing a tax-rate hike.

“I may make a misstep or two but will always get back on track,” he said.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez put it in a more colorful way earlier Monday, even before the mayor said he would keep the tax-rate flat.

“He was sitting on an ant hill of his own creation — and he got up very quickly,” Suarez said.

Commissioners will vote Tuesday on the maximum tax rate for the 2013-14 fiscal year. They will be able to lower but not raise the rate later. A decision on specific cuts won’t come until the budget is approved after two public hearings in September.

For the first time, the commission will hold a public hearing at County Hall on Tuesday morning before taking the tax-rate vote.

Later Tuesday, they will vote on impasses with six labor unions over Gimenez’s proposal to extend several benefit concessions, including requiring most workers to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs. Only one of the impasses is over both the concessions and the healthcare contribution; the other five are limited to the concessions.

The firefighters union is exempt because it has its own health insurance.

Despite some commissioners’ requests to eliminate the healthcare contribution on Jan. 1, 2014 as planned, Gimenez said he will not budge on that part of his proposed budget.

“We can’t afford it,” he said.

Otherwise, the county would have to cut about $37 million from the general fund and $18 million from elsewhere in the budget, for a total of $55 million. Restoring the other concessions would require an additional $21 million in cuts.

Union chiefs will ask commissioners Tuesday to tap a $42 million surplus in the county’s health-insurance trust fund, which the bargaining units say is unnecessary. The administration argues it helps maintain benefits and hold the line against future health-insurance rate increases.

The Pets’ Trust, the grassroots group that promoted the no-kill animal shelter, has hired big-time lobbyist Ron Book to plead for the full $19 million in funding Tuesday. Gimenez said last week he would instead commit $4 million from the county’s general fund to pay for a stripped-down plan. His office has yet to offer additional details.