Miami-Dade County

More cops, raises in new Miami budget

Miami commissioners finished off a contentious budget session late Thursday night, voting unanimously to put more cops on the streets and giving the acting city manager some much needed leverage to restore some lost benefits to officers.

In the end, shortly after 10 p.m., and more than four hours after the debate began, commissioners cemented a $524 million spending plan for 2014 that promises 95 additional officers by April, and gave acting City Manager Daniel Alfonso $2 million to use during contract negotiations with the city’s police union.

The deal was reached after commissioners agreed to a recommendation from Alfonso to move more than $1.5 million from various departments into police coffers, and after they decided to raid a surplus reserve of $2 million that will ultimately go toward restoring salary and benefits drained from officers’ pay during lean budget years.

Though the plan was slightly altered from Mayor Tomás Regalado’s original proposal and calls for using $1.4 million in non-recurring revenue, the mayor said he was satisfied.

“I’m a little concerned about the reserve,” said Regalado. “But this is for a very good cause. We’re going to have 95 officers patrolling the streets within a year and the people will be safer.”

Alfonso warned commissioners he could be back for a mid-year adjustment if the negotiations with unions don’t go smoothly.

Still, the unanimous vote meant residents’ demands for more officers were mostly met, and the city’s police force will jump from about 1,110 to more than 1,200.

The five-member commission was responding to cries for more cops from frustrated Coconut Grove homeowners, who have seen a rise in burglaries, especially in the Grove’s south end. The commissioners were also attempting to satisfy police officers who have seen their compensation drop by more than 20 percent in some cases.

“Every element of the city breaks down if there is a security concern,” South Grove resident Fernand Amandi, who has led the charge for more cops, told commissioners.

Officer Tom Vokaty, a 29-year veteran who said his total compensation has dropped by more than 22 percent, also addressed the commission.

“I ask that you restore benefits before you hire,” he said. “I ask that you take care of us — do what’s right.”

In the end, commissioners voted on a budget that for the first time in five years, will not have to slash department budgets or cut services to residents. Most departmental budgets remained intact from 2013. The new budget goes into effect Oct. 1.

The spending plan adds millions to the city’s reserves, to bring it up to $57 million. It increases the police department’s budget by $9 million, to $167.3 million, and keeps the fire department’s budget relatively intact at $99.6 million.

It also slightly lowers the property-tax rate to $8.43 for every $1,000 of taxable property, a savings of $8 for the owner of a $200,000 home without a homestead exemption.

Unlike the first budget hearing two weeks ago, the City Hall chamber wasn’t packed with residents and cops in a raucous mood. Only about a dozen or so speakers took to the podium Thursday in just under an hour.

Pernerva Curry, of Model City, wanted to know why her property value and tax bill keep dropping. She said the lack of money is at the heart of the city’s problems.

“Some people say don’t worry, you have less taxes to pay. I think this is the problem. I’m concerned about this,” she said.

Javier Fernandez, an attorney representing developers in Brickell and the Design District, said the biggest threat to a prosperous city is the real or perceived threat of crime.

“We ask the city to invest along with us,” he said.

City residents wanted $10 million for 100 more officers, while the police union demanded $6.5 million for raises and to restore some lost benefits, such as tuition reimbursement and extra pay for assignments in SWAT and K9 units.

A big part of the city’s problem is that prospective officers trained at the city’s new police college have been leaving for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. Miami police officers earn less than many other smaller policing agencies in Miami-Dade. The force’s police-to-population ratio also suffers compared to other similar-sized cities in the U.S. Despite the apparent agreement for additional hires, increasing the force’s size is still a daunting task because more than 250 officers are expected to retire by 2017.

The plan accepted by the commission includes a recent proposal by Alfonso to use $500,000 that had been budgeted for a citywide election runoff in November, $500,000 from a risk management insurance pool, and $470,000 the city received from the Ultra Music Festival and the television show Burn Notice that is in a rainy-day fund.

The speakers were done by 7 p.m. Then it was the commission’s turn. For three hours they discussed raiding reserves, how to deal with labor negotiations, even the city’s past wrongs.

At one point, Manuel Orosa, the police chief, had to explain how part of the officer-hiring hold-up was due to the city still dealing with a decades-old consent decree with the Justice Department because of unfair minority hiring citywide. The decree still allows DOJ to oversee essentially every hire in the police department.

Another conversation stalled when Alfonso warned commissioners they had to refrain from telling the administration how to spend money that officers would receive through labor contracts.

“How can the union and us have a fair discussion if we end up at impasse already knowing what happens?” he asked.

Commissioner Francis Suarez proposed raiding the surplus reserve account.

“I think we’ve been an extremely fiscally prudent commission,” he said.

That plan worried Commissioner Frank Carollo, who noted the money was non-recurring, and warned administrators to be careful in the future.

“We’ve been extremely fiscally prudent,” Carollo said. “Let’s not stop now.”