Miami-Dade County

Miami budget battle: More cops or higher salaries

Near the end of Miami’s first budget hearing two weeks ago, long after most people had cleared the chamber, Javier Ortiz stood before commissioners with a plan to boost sagging morale in his department, and to stop employees from abandoning ship to take jobs with other cities.

The president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police said if Acting City Manager Daniel Alfonso redirected $6.5 million from somewhere in the mayor’s proposed budget to the police department, the city could bump every police officer’s pay by $5,000, making paychecks more in line with other local South Florida agencies.

“Let’s do something,” Ortiz implored.

Standing nearby was Fernand Amandi, a Grove resident and well-known pollster, who wanted the money spent instead on hiring more police officers because of a rash of recent burglaries in his South Coconut Grove neighborhood.

“We’re demanding $10 million for 100 extra officers,” Amandi told the commission, his young son cradled in his arms.

This much is clear: After five years of salary and benefit cuts to help cover budget shortfalls, Miami police officers are underpaid — and the department is understaffed.

The struggle between hiring more officers versus restoring lost benefits is the lone major stumbling block for commissioners as they navigate through Thursday’s second and final budget hearing, attempting to pass the city’s $524-million 2014 spending plan.

As the clock ticked closer to 11 p.m. during the hearing two weeks ago, Mayor Tomás Regalado, who proposed the budget to the five-member commission, sauntered to the podium.

“We’ve been hearing you,” said the mayor. “I think if you give him [Alfonso] and his team some days, I think he can come up with something.”

Earlier that evening, Alfonso, a budget expert hired away from Miami-Dade County two years ago to put the city’s financial house in order, warned of the difficulty of moving money around in the bare-bones 2014 budget plan.

A week later, Alfonso said he and staffers were busy trying to identify options for redistributing the city’s operational funds — but the outlook remained bleak: Important city functions like filling potholes and clearing lots could be eliminated, he warned. Alfonso, also the city’s budget director, wouldn’t rule out personnel cuts.

“Seeing that approximately 75 percent of the city’s budget is personnel, any major changes to the budget would likely result in personnel reduction,” he said.

Despite the budget woes, it’s clear that after years of cuts to paychecks and benefits, Miami officers need to see a light at the end of the tunnel to keep them in the city.

The starting salary for a new officer in Miami — the largest municipal force in Miami-Dade — who goes through the police academy is $45,929. That pay is lower than most other agencies in Miami-Dade, and well below starting salaries for officers in Miami Beach, Aventura, and even Bay Harbor Islands and Pinecrest, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement figures for 2012.

Most police agencies in Broward County have higher starting salaries than Miami. Over the past four years Miami salaries have been repeatedly slashed and a host of benefits, including bonuses for higher education and for added duties like joining the SWAT team, have been eliminated.

And though the city budgeted for 1,144 officers this year, it remains almost 40 officers shy of that number, as some have taken early retirement, others have fled for better pay, and a lengthy hiring process has taken its toll. Miami’s police-to-population ratio of about two officers for every 1,000 residents is about half that of several other cities with similar populations like Baltimore and Atlanta — as Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff has argued repeatedly over the past 18 months.

“We are the lowest staffed police department of any department over 100,000 in the country,” Sarnoff said at the first hearing. “What I’ve noticed is those one- to five-year cops have no vested interest to stay.”

Police Chief Manuel Orosa said he needs more officers and they need more money. He believes both can be accomplished, but it will require squeezing other departments and placing a freeze on new hires citywide.

The chief, though, sees an even bigger issue down the road: The city will lose 251 officers by 2017 through an early retirement program. Only about 20 are expected to leave in 2014, but the numbers will increase dramatically the next three years.

That means no matter how many officers Miami hires, the city is likely to keep losing ground.

“We’ll catch up next year,” said Orosa. “Then the following year, it’ll take us a while to recoup.”

It may take longer than the chief wishes if the troops who flooded City Hall’s chambers two weeks ago stick to their words and flee to higher paying agencies.

One of the officers at that meeting: Det. Armando Alvarez, 25. A six-year veteran who skyrocketed to detective rank after serving on the department’s problem-solving team, he lives with his girlfriend of four years and her daughter. Vacations are down to occasional visits to Disneyland. “With her salary and mine it wouldn’t be feasible” to buy a home, Alvarez said.

The detective earns $50,804 a year and most of his benefits have been cut. He delayed getting a college degree after the city cut the $2,400-a-year tuition reimbursement program. He hasn’t had a raise since 2009, his second year on the force. His pension contribution has jumped, from seven percent to 10. Alvarez is considering joining a federal law enforcement agency and said he’s waiting to apply for an opening at Miami-Dade police. Though an officer with Alvarez’s experience would earn slightly less at Miami-Dade, Alvarez feels his future would be brighter.

To make ends meet Alvarez said he works whatever overtime is available — the Ultra Festival, Calle Ocho, Miami Heat games.

“Those jobs are headaches in themselves,” said Alvarez. “We depend a lot on my in-laws for help with our daughter.”

On the other side of the budget battle are Coconut Grove residents. Though the area has seen a slight drop in overall crime, there have been alarming increases in larcenies and burglaries in some of their neighborhoods. Amandi and several of his neighbors have been burglarized the past year as the Grove’s southern zone has suffered a 67 percent spike in burglaries over the previous year.

Orosa acknowledges other areas in the city could use more officers as well, like blossoming but still-edgy Wynwood.

Amandi and his neighbors want more cops. To get the point home, the Grove resident rallied neighbors to the first budget hearing with the use of his lengthy list of contacts, blasting emails to homeowners about lurking dangers, and imploring they show up at a town hall meeting a few weeks before, then at the first budget session.

“Despite increased vigilance and a heightened state of alertness, these perpetrators continue to brazenly break into homes and erode the neighborhood’s sense of security and quality of life for Grove residents,” Amandi wrote.

It worked: 246 residents showed up for an initial gathering at City Hall that also attracted Regalado and Orosa. Many attended the first budget hearing a week later.

Amandi now believes the city can hire more officers and increase patrols if Alfonso can find $9 million or more to move around — a tall order.

The problem, though, is the fluidity of the numbers. Amandi wants 100 more cops, which to him means 35 additional hires if the city gets up to its current budgeted total of 1,144 and adds the 25 more officers budgeted for 2014. Sarnoff would like the number to increase to 1,244 or more.

Still, with hundreds of cops scheduled to retire in the next four years, the number of police officers in Miami could actually drop.

“The average homeowner just wants our city leaders to solve the problem,” said Amandi. “There has to be a complete reprioritization of public safety within the city of Miami. This isn’t just a one-year fix.”

The city’s five commissioners are split on the issue: Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Michelle Spence-Jones said during the first hearing that if Miami doesn’t concentrate on taking care of its own officers first, there will be little incentive for others to join the force.

“You’ve got to take care of the officers who are already here,” Spence-Jones said at the first budget hearing.

Sarnoff, on the losing end of the tentative budget vote two weeks ago, wanted more money directed to police hires. He tried, but failed, to get the property tax rate raised to fatten up police department coffers.

The commission chair wants crime down, but says hiring more police has an equally significant role in attracting business. Safer undeveloped areas, Sarnoff said, would attract more residential and commercial development and could convince companies to relocate to Miami.

“It’s the seeds of creating a better tax base for the city,” said Sarnoff.