For the past half year Miami-Dade County’s fire union and the mayor’s office have been slinging mud and insults at each other over a budget shortfall that threatened 59 jobs and three fire rescue trucks.
Monday, the arguing subsided when the county announced it had received an early Christmas gift: An $11.4 million federal grant that ensures there will be no fire department cuts or personnel losses for the next two years.
The grant is know as SAFER, for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. It’s an award from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help local governments keep staff when facing financial shortfalls.
“It’s a big deal because it saves 59 positions,” said Deputy County Mayor Chip Iglesias. “But the fire district itself still has challenges, financial issues.”
First up for Iglesias: filling a $900,000 hole created in October and November after commissioners chose to take the chance of waiting for the grant instead of raiding reserves or making cuts during contentious September budget hearings.
“We held off on layoffs in anticipation of possibly getting the grant. We’re going to have to make up the difference. We’ll take a look at inefficiencies within the department,” Iglesias said.
Rowan Taylor, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1403, said the grant means no layoffs, and that fire rescue trucks will continue to be staffed with four employees.
“Now they can’t lay off anyone without returning the [grant] money,” Taylor said.
Taylor said despite the grant, the union continues to grapple with issues like the $9.1 million the administration took from fire fees in 2010 and 2011 to boost a contingency reserve. Taylor wants the money back in the fire district, and said the union is exploring a lawsuit.
Still, Monday’s news calmed a six-month battle of words between the union and the mayor’s office. The barbs began flying over the summer when Mayor Carlos Gimenez warned that if the county didn’t receive the grant, it was likely looking at the loss of 59 jobs and three fire trucks.
Townhall meetings were held to explain the problem to angry citizens and firefighters. Some wanted to raid a county reserve they believed was bloated by about $40 million in fire fees.
Gimenez warned that raiding the reserve would only mean bigger problems for the next budget year. He said filling the hole without a recurring revenue stream would mean a larger debt next year, on top of trying to find the money to make the reserve whole again.
The mayor’s task was made even more difficult because the county was also dealing with a multimillion dollar shortfall for its library system, and the mayor’s advice was to close some libraries down and lay off workers.
The meetings were lengthy and fiery, with speakers getting even more frustrated when they learned the two departments had their own taxing district and couldn’t be made whole with county general-fund money.
In the end, commissioners passed a $6.3 billion budget without really tackling the fire issue. Instead of service cuts or layoffs, they chose to do nothing and hope the grant came through. The department’s popular venom-response unit was saved with $641,000 in general fund money. The county said the unit fell outside the fire taxing district because it served citizens countywide.
Some reserves were used to keep the libraries open, though hours were cut and no one lost a job. Keeping the libraries afloat next year could cost an additional $20 million, Gimenez warned.
Now the mayor is facing the daunting task of negotiating deals with 10 unions. He’s requesting that county workers continue to contribute five percent of their base pay to help cover insurance costs — a practice deployed during tight budget years and was supposed to have ended already.
Meantime, according to Iglesias, the fire department is looking at more of the same next year because the district isn’t growing at the same rate as county costs, and because tax collections are down.
Taylor called that position posturing as county administrators prepare for new contract negotiations in January. He said the union has agreed to about $50 million in concessions the past two contracts — everything from merit pay freezes to reduced overtime — as the county dealt with budget shortfalls during the recession.
“Now…our employees are due a raise,” said Taylor.