Miami-Dade County

Commissioner asks Miami-Dade to reduce or eliminate practice of paying union reps

A Miami-Dade commissioner began a push Monday to have the county end its practice of excusing dozens of public employees from their work duties to serve as full-time labor union representatives.

Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, citing a Miami Herald report, has sponsored legislation directing county administrators who must renegotiate union contracts next year to eliminate or reduce the number of exempt employees.

The Herald reported last month that 42 employees who have collected more than $2.65 million in salaries so far this year work full-time for their unions and cannot be fired from their county jobs.

“Shouldn’t employees that are doing the union work be paid by the union to do their work?” Bovo asked at a commission meeting Monday. “Why does the taxpayer have to front that bill?”

His legislation will be heard for the first time Tuesday at a finance committee meeting.

One of Bovo’s former colleagues in the Florida Legislature, Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera, first noted he could not fire one of his employees who wasn’t showing up to work because he was a union rep. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 199, which represents the employee in question, said reps are needed to resolve personnel matters and ensure fair treatment for workers.

Bovo brought up the issue Monday at an informal commission discussion — without public input — on the proposed 2013-14 budget, which the board must approve after two formal public hearings next month. Funded by a flat property-tax rate, the budget as drafted will require steep service cuts and more than 200 employee layoffs.

After the Herald report was published in July, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he would bring up the employee exemptions during negotiations with the county’s 10 bargaining units.

The union talks are already bound to be thorny: Miami-Dade is at an impasse with labor over Gimenez’s position that the county continue to require employees to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward group healthcare costs. Commissioners must resolve that matter Thursday.

If Monday was any indication, commissioners are either saving their remarks on the healthcare contribution until later in the week or they’re not intending to force Gimenez’s administration to restore employees’ pay.

Only a couple of the 10 of 13 commissioners present at the meeting Monday brought up ending the concession as planned in January 2014.

“These employees have given and given and given,” Commissioner Audrey Edmonson said. “I don’t think they can give any more.”

The mayor said the general fund cannot afford the $37 million it would take to do away with the healthcare giveback and other union concessions.

“We’re not asking our employees to give any more — not one cent more — but by the same token, we shouldn’t be giving them more right now, because the situation is what it is,” he said.

Commissioners raised other concerns about Gimenez’s latest budget plan, issued late Friday, which would keep all public libraries open but with less than two-thirds of their staff and open only about three-quarters of the hours currently offered. In all, 169 library workers would be laid off.

Libraries Director Raymond Santiago said hours for each branch, which are still being finalized, will be based in part on demand. Branches visited mostly by seniors may open in the morning, for example, and those visited mostly by children may open after school.

Separately, 59 firefighters would get pink slips and three fire trucks would be eliminated, unless Miami-Dade receives a two-year federal grant. Gimenez said Monday the county believes it has a “very, very good chance” of being awarded the funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The firefighters’ union is still clamoring for the general fund to return to the department $9.1 million it contributed to the contingency reserves between 2009 and 2010.

Those funds — moved before Gimenez’s tenure, the mayor noted — are available for the department to use on a rainy day, Budget Director Jennifer Moon told commissioners. That day could come in about a month if the fire district that funds the department separately from the general fund collects less in property taxes than projected.

In general, Commissioner Sally Heyman criticized the tumultuous budget season, chiding the mayor for initially proposed a property-tax rate hike to maintain library and fire-rescue services and fund a no-kill animal shelter before reversing course over less than a week last month.

“It was a chop and patch,” she said. “I hated the idea that over a four-day period, the budget was realigned.”

Gimenez has said he flipped on his tax-hike plan because of the political backlash he received. Since then, however, he has also gotten an earful from fire, library and pet advocates at three town hall-style meetings. Three more are scheduled over the next two weeks.

Edmonson and Heyman, who represent coastal districts, asked the fire department to put into use two county-owned fire boats that have been moored without any funding to operate them.

But Chief Dave Downey said he gave funding priority to fire and rescue trucks that receive many more calls for service for much larger swaths of the population. And Gimenez, a former Miami fire chief, said the county must cooperate with cities such as Miami and Miami Beach on any fires on the water.

Commissioners had other quibbles with the budget, which would eliminate the office of healthcare planning and funding for a sports commission, a pothole crew and a NEAT team that fixes minor street problems. But there was far less anxiety than a month ago.

“You have come a long way,” Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa told the mayor.

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