Miami-Dade County commissioners signed off on a $6.3 billion budget for 2013-14 shortly after midnight Friday, keeping their fingers crossed that the government will qualify for a federal grant that would help avert firefighter layoffs and the elimination of fire trucks.
Despite firefighters’ appeals that Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration tap countywide emergency reserves to save three trucks and prevent 59 pink slips, commissioners said they will instead hold out hope that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security awards the Miami-Dade fire-rescue department a two-year, $5.9 million grant to plug the budget hole.
If the grant doesn’t come through next month, Commissioner Dennis Moss noted the county could still consider raiding the reserves. He called the spending plan, approved after a tumultuous two months of administrative changes and citizen protests, “a budget we can live with.”
“Everybody’s not happy with this,” he conceded.
Commissioners found a way to keep the fire department’s venom-response unit intact by agreeing that the service is provided across the county, not just to areas that do not have city fire services. As a result, Miami-Dade will pay for most of the $641,000-a-year unit out of the county’s general fund.
The money will come from another decision reached by commissioners late Thursday: to revise the county’s policy of complying with federal immigration authorities’ request to keep foreign nationals in detention longer than local police requires. That should save Miami-Dade about $600,000 a year, Gimenez said. Only about $350,000 of that will go toward the venom-response unit.
After a hearing that lasted more than seven hours in which more than 100 people spoke, the commission voted 11-1 for the budget, with Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez voting in favor.
Moss was absent from the budget vote, though he voted in favor of the tax rate and most other items that must be approved separately.
Commissioner Juan C. Zapata voted against. He said he found some line items unfair to residents who live in unincorporated neighborhoods outside of cities, and he criticized Gimenez for what Zapata called a lack of vision.
“The budget is the biggest policy statement we make,” Zapata said. “I look at this budget, and I’m hard-pressed to find the policy.”
Edmonson and Monestime opposed the elimination of the five-member countywide office of healthcare planning on the first day of the fiscal year: Oct. 1, the same day as the new federal healthcare law takes effect. Gimenez said the cut was a “last resort” to fill in the budget gap, but the county will continue looking for ways to assist the public in navigating the new law.
“As mayor of Miami-Dade County, I occupy a non-partisan seat,” said Gimenez, a Republican, obliquely referring to criticism from the county’s Democratic Party about the elimination of the office.
Under the flat property-tax rate commissioners approved last week, a homeowner with a taxable property value of $200,000 living in an unincorporated neighborhood such as Kendall would pay $27.32 more in county taxes than last year. The increase would be higher if a home’s value has gone up more than the 3.39 percent county average. County taxes make up only a portion of the total property-tax bill.
Layoffs and diminished library hours were staved off last week when commissioners decided to deplete the department’s reserves as a stopgap measure. Firefighter after firefighter asked commissioners during more than four hours of public comment Thursday evening to find a similar fix for the fire department.
Rowan Taylor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1403, delivered an eloquent presentation defending firefighters’ work and pay and detailing the cuts and sacrifices the department has made in recent years.
“I’ve delivered babies. I rescued a guy from a house that was half dead. I took a little baby out of a toilet. This is real life,” he said. “What is a firefighter-paramedic worth?”
Gimenez remained opposed to using reserves in general to fund expenses that recur every year.
A robust group of library supporters thanked commissioners Thursday for their support last week. But Gimenez reiterated that the decision to empty the department’s reserves could mean more pain in the future.
Additional money for the libraries was supposed to come from a separate pot of countywide emergency reserves, but that fund will no longer have to be tapped, because savings from operating expenses this year will be carried over to next year.
Still, “the financial situation will be even worse for our libraries next year,” Gimenez said.
The library and fire departments are funded from taxes separate from the ones that fund the county’s $4.4 billion day-to-day operating budget. Keeping the tax rate flat created gaping holes for those department’s budgets in the coming year.
At Thursday’s hearing, one firefighter, 32-year-old Isara Vimonsut of South Miami-Dade, said he is one of 40 new recruits hired this year who would lose their jobs. Many left other departments to work for Miami-Dade.
“This has been my dream for so long,” Vimonsut said, his voice trembling. “I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
People who have received antidotes from the fire department’s venom-response unit came from as far as Boca Raton to exhort the commission to keep the three-person unit intact instead of moving its staff to other fire operations jobs.
Carmen Alvarez of Miramar praised the venom-response unit for saving her 8-year-old daughter Clarissa Vega’s foot after she was bitten in their backyard by a poisonous water moccasin snake.
After the firefighter from the unit arrived at Memorial Hospital, Clarissa said, “I felt safe.”
Separately, a string of advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants urged commissioners to end the practice of assisting federal immigration authorities’ detentions.
County Attorney Robert Cuevas opined in July that Miami-Dade is not required to heed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s request to hold detainees longer than required. Though Gimenez said the practice costs the county $600,000, activists used a far larger number, citing their own research, of $12 million. It was unclear what period of time that referred to or how they arrived at that number.
Among the activists was Aida Zuñiga of the National Latina Institute, who called the federal practice “discriminatory” and argued that it foments distrust of local police. The county could find better uses for the money that goes to help the feds, she added.
“Start taking care of our families and children,” said Zuñiga, of North Miami.
Proponents of the Pets’ Trust, a grass-roots initiative to stop killing cats and dogs at the county animal shelter, appeared resigned Thursday to the fact that the plan — supported by an overwhelming majority of voters in a non-binding ballot question last year — would not be fully funded in the coming year. Gimenez has made it a point to say his administration increased the animal services budget and is building a new shelter.
“We will reach out to our supporters and have to explain to them the spirit of this compromise,” co-founder Michael Rosenberg said.
Gimenez, acknowledging the agitation that followed after he reversed course on an initial proposal to raise the tax rate, highlighted good news in the budget: Maintaining funding for Head Start, the national pre-kindergarten program for children, despite federal cuts known as sequestration. Bumping up — by 40 percent — funding for the animal services department, to move toward the no-kill shelter goal.
“Tonight marks the end of a long and sometimes challenging process,” he said.