Miami-Dade County

One-year reprieve for Miami-Dade libraries means cuts may still loom

Miami-Dade commissioners unexpectedly granted libraries a one-year reprieve Wednesday, though painful cutbacks will loom over the system unless the county comes up with a long-term plan for to fund it.

By raiding one-time reserves to avoid scaling back library hours and laying off 169 workers, the commission put off making a difficult choice between cutting services or raising the property-tax rate, saying it hopes to find a middle path over the next few months.

Otherwise, Wednesday’s decision will create a $20 million hole in next year’s budget to fund the libraries at the same level as this coming year. The gap is the total of the $7.8 million used in reserves plus projected costs next year that will be covered by the reserves this year.

A working group proposed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez to examine how to structure, operate and pay for the county’s 49 libraries in the future take on a new urgency.

“Now we know there’s a cliff,” Gimenez told commissioners in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, after commissioners voted to use the reserves. “We’re going to have to solve the problem before we get to the next fiscal year.”

Before the 1:35 a.m. vote — the public hearing on the 2013-14 budget began at 5:01 p.m. Tuesday — Gimenez warned against tapping the reserves, since that money will not be available again to cover recurring expenses. The library department’s $5 million reserves will be depleted, and the countywide emergency reserve will lose $2.8 million that had been contributed by the libraries.

But commissioners appeared relieved to find a temporary solution after listening for more than five hours to library employees and patrons who implored the board to save jobs and keep libraries intact.

“Let’s worry about next year, next year, and deal with this year, this year,” Commissioner Barbara Jordan said, summing up the majority’s sentiment.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to use the reserves, with Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Jordan, Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss and Xavier Suarez in favor. Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Javier Souto and Juan C. Zapata dissented.

“We did it,” read a subsequent post on the Save the Miami-Dade Public Libraries campaign page on Facebook. “Tonight, library supporters took on County Hall, and won.”

The compromise only affects libraries. The fire-rescue department is still slated to eliminate three fire trucks and lay off 59 firefighters, unless Miami-Dade is awarded a federal grant. Commissioners will approve the final budget on Sept. 19.

Gimenez pointedly reminded commissioners that six of them face reelection in 2014 and will almost certainly oppose a tax-rate hike — which means their action Wednesday may have delayed but not avoided the library cuts.

“Eventually, this government is going to have to face reality. I’d rather face it now than later,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to raise taxes when you’re going to election.”

But Bell, one of the commissioners who will be on the ballot, said board members understood the burden they were taking on.

“It’s on us,” she said. “It’s our responsibility.”

A coalition of activists had targeted Bell for a recall drive as one of eight commissioners who voted in July to keep the property-tax rate flat. She struck a defiant tone from the dais, telling animal advocates behind the recall effort that she will continue to back their causes “even if I’m going to serve my term under a threat of recall for doing what’s right.”

Several commissioners rebuked the activists. Moss asked the groups to stop their effort.

Wednesday afternoon, the pro-labor Miami Economic Sustainability Alliance, one of the groups behind the recall, said it would hold off on the drive to see if library and fire services are maintained in the final budget.

“Our participation in the recall effort is all about protecting basic services, to the community,” said Fred Frost, the group’s vice president.

Before commissioners agreed to dip into the reserves, they seriously considered raising the tax rate that funds libraries, in what would have been a stunning reversal of their July decision to hold the rate steady.

Seven commissioners appeared ready to sign off on the hike. But fearing a likely veto by Gimenez that they would have been unable to override without a nine-member super-majority, they opted to use the reserves instead.

Even before the compromise, Gimenez had said he was confident his staff would find a way to keep libraries open for the same number of hours they currently operate. But he wouldn’t have been able to save library workers’ jobs.

Planning for the libraries’ future will be a significant undertaking for Gimenez, who, when he took office two years ago, first proposed to close 13 branches. That idea was shelved after drawing backlash from commissioners.

The library department has since been dependent on surplus funds from prior years, leading to an inevitable crisis when that money ran out. The county should have been prepared, activists contended Tuesday.

Gimenez’s working group is still being configured, but the mayor has said he wants to consider doing away with the tax district that requires libraries to be funded from taxes separate from the general fund. That would require reaching an agreement with cities with their own municipal libraries, such as Hialeah, whose residents do not pay for the county system.

While folding the standalone taxing district into the general fund could make it easier to plug future library budget holes, some activists have said they fear library dollars could also be diverted to other departments more easily.

Gimenez also said the county should take a closer look at Miami-Dade’s job qualifications and salaries for librarians, who are required to have a master’s degree and make an average annual base salary of $70,300, excluding benefits. His administration must sit down with labor unions next year to renegotiate employee contracts.

Separately, Gimenez said he has asked the county auditor to examine whether nearly $7.5 million moved from the library budget in 2009 to fund cultural programs inside the library tax district was improperly spent.

If so, Gimenez said his administration would develop a repayment plan over several future years to put the money back in the library budget from the general fund.