Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade County will no longer close any public libraries

Nearly six weeks after cautioning it could shutter 22 public libraries, Miami-Dade County has found a way to keep all 49 facilities open at least some of the time, offering stripped-down services.

In all, 169 library workers — more than a third of the department’s 461 employees — would lose their jobs by Oct. 1, and libraries would begin to operate about three-quarters of the hours they do now, Mayor Carlos Gimenez informed county commissioners late Friday.

The board is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the most recent 2013-14 budget projections, following its decision last month to keep the property-tax rate flat despite service cuts and employee layoffs that would follow as a result.

For Gimenez, who was elected to a four-year term last August, the conversation won’t just be about the upcoming budget. He intends to maintain the flat rate for two years, signaling that despite the economy’s slow improvements, Miami-Dade government is unlikely to return to its prior size.

“The sky’s not falling. The world’s not going to end,” Gimenez said in an interview with the Miami Herald. But, he added, “We are going to have to face the facts in future budgets. We are going to spend within our means.”

The county’s 10 employee bargaining units will renegotiate their union contracts next year. Those talks will be marred by Gimenez’s recommendation this year to continue requiring employees to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs. The giveback had been scheduled to end in January 2014; the issue is at impasse.

Commissioners, who are scheduled to vote Thursday to resolve the impasse, have asked that employees’ pay be restored. But Gimenez reiterated Friday that he cannot find the $37 million that would be required to restore that and other concessions.

The final budget won’t be approved by the commission until after two public hearings in September.

In a memo to commissioners, Gimenez said the county must consider the library department’s long-term future, including altering its funding structure. Libraries rely on taxes separate from those that go to the county’s general fund.

“To move toward a sustainable library system in the future, we must shift our perspective on how library services in Miami-Dade County are currently funded,” he wrote.

The potential library closures, characterized as the worst-case scenario on July 16, have drawn perhaps the most protests as administrators have slowly whittled down the list of branches on the chopping block. The last four that had been at risk as of two weeks ago — the Country Walk, Sunset and Tamiami branches in West Miami-Dade and the Civic Center kiosk — will now be spared, though advocates have stridently opposed the significant librarian layoffs.

Other areas of Miami-Dade’s sprawling $4.4 billion day-to-day operating budget would also take a hit — including the fire-rescue department, which faces the elimination of three fire trucks and layoffs of 59 firefighters. Among those at risk are 40 new recruits who recently began their full-time jobs. Fire-rescue employs 2,431 people.

No stations would be closed because the three trucks in question reside in stations that have more than one truck apiece. Two fire engines are located in Goulds and North Bay Village. A fire truck with a ladder is in Haulover.

The county hopes to save those trucks and firefighters with a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. However, Miami-Dade likely won’t find out if it has been selected to receive the funding until after the start of the new budget year on Oct. 1.

If the county does not receive the money, it may have to lay off more than 59 firefighters to balance its books after incurring additional personnel expenses into the new fiscal year.

The budget initially proposed also eliminating three rescue trucks and laying off a total of 149 employees. Those units, and their corresponding paramedics, have since been saved.

Rowan Taylor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1403, said if the federal grant doesn’t come through, the county should further decrease the fees it charges the fire-rescue department for administrative costs — and tap into a portion of countywide contingency reserves contributed by the department. Otherwise, Taylor said, the union might sue.

“That money does not belong in the general fund,” he argued.

A majority of voters recently polled on behalf of the union said they considered fire-rescue services a high or fairly high priority. Respondents also said they opposed service cuts but were not asked about the alternative — a tax-rate hike.

The survey, conducted by political consultant Emiliano Antunez’s Global Mindset Research firm, polled 450 registered voters in English and Spanish on Aug. 2-5. It had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

The shuffling in the library and fire-rescue departments, as well as unforeseen decreases in some revenues to the county, will result in additional reductions in the general fund.

The smaller library and fire departments will require fewer administrative services and pay less rent, The general fund will also have to reimburse more money than expected to the public housing department for administering federal funds. And Miami-Dade will receive less money than projected from utility franchise fees users pay Florida Power & Light.

Taken together, those changes will amount to $10.5 million less coming into county coffers.

To balance the budget, several departments will do away with funded vacant positions. The county attorney’s office will delay hiring. The office of countywide healthcare planning, which assists residents with finding healthcare services, will be eliminated. A cultural grant will be scaled back. Funding for a sports commission will be canceled.

Eight people — from the healthcare planning office, a pothole crew and a NEAT team that fixes problems such as broken street signs — will be laid off.

Looming is another potential issue: Miami-Dade is catching up on refunds owed to residents who have successfully appealed the values of their properties. That will further shrink the budget, but the county won’t know until the end of September by how much its purse will be affected.

For now, the focus will remain on library and fire, with shortened library hours still being worked on. For comparison, libraries will open 1,624 hours next fiscal year, compared to 2,016 hours this year.

Libraries Director Raymond Santiago said it’s better to have more libraries offering less service than closing facilities altogether.

“It’s something to build on, as opposed to trying to start again from scratch,” he said.

One way for the county to have more flexibility in managing the library budget is to dissolve the stand-alone taxing district that funds it and instead fold it into the general fund, Gimenez said. The taxing district had been created so residents of cities with their own municipal libraries, such as Miami Shores, did not have to pay taxes toward the county system.

Miami-Dade will create a community working group to meet with municipalities and envision how county libraries should look in five and 10 years. In addition to the working group, the library department will conduct an operational and fiscal study of its services and those provided by cities.

“We spent the last month talking with all of our cities that we have libraries in, and it’s really been fruitful,” Santiago said. “We need to figure out, ‘How do we keep the conversation going?’”