Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade Mayor Gimenez inching toward plan to ‘gauge’ voter interest in higher taxes

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez moved closer Friday to proposing a countywide vote this summer on higher property taxes, writing to county commissioners that “it is important to gauge what investments need to be made” at parks, libraries, and cultural institutions.

The written report comes two days after Gimenez floated the same idea in an interview, saying he might call for a non-binding straw poll in August asking voters to endorse higher property taxes for what he described in the memo as “programs and services that provide children and families with greater opportunities for learning, recreating and creativity.” Friday’s memo provides no new details, but suggests that the idea remains alive for a mayor who last year saw an attempted tax increase collapse days after he proposed it.

But if Gimenez wants to push for more revenue, he has yet to champion the idea. Friday’s memo delivered a task-force report on how to fix a $20 million funding gap at the county’s library system, and Gimenez stopped short of recommending the property-tax increase called for in the report itself. While he endorses more dollars for libraries, Gimenez wrote that he might want a thumbs-up from voters first.

“I am considering a referendum to coincide with the primary election in August that will measure public support for ways to fund this priority,” Gimenez wrote, referring to the county library task force’s recommendations on what services the county must find a way to maintain.

The memo hints that if Gimenez opts to push for a higher tax, he doesn’t want to fight just for more library revenue. With two new county-backed museums, under-funded parks, and libraries facing a budget crisis in about six months, Gimenez may be seeking a new source of revenue to tackle multiple shortfalls at once.

While voters passed tax increases for schools and the county’s Jackson hospital system in the past two years, Gimenez is sure to face a political thicket if he asks voters to pay more property taxes. County Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr., whose district includes Hialeah, expressed skepticism this week that the public wants to increase funding to Miami-Dade’s government.

“The sentiment I get from a lot of people is there is a general frustration that we have not been transparent enough for people to say, ‘Yes, you guys need that money,’ ” Bovo said. “There is a clear sense of ‘You guys have enough money. Do what you need to do.’ ”

The nuanced language of the memo Friday depicts a mayor treading lightly along the treacherous terrain of tax increases. Gimenez came to office in 2011 amid backlash against a tax increase from his predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, and quickly pushed through lower property-tax rates.

Last year, Gimenez briefly proposed a property-tax boost before dropping the idea in the face of opposition from commissioners and constituents. He’s negotiating a stadium deal with the Miami Dolphins that would provide tax relief for Sun Life Stadium in exchange for a privately financed $350 million renovation, and faces a $200 million revenue gap once the new budget year begins Oct. 1.

The library task-force report recommends an unspecified boost in the countywide property tax that funds libraries. That tax currently generates only $30 million for a library system that this year will spend $50 million. Cash reserves from the real estate boom allowed the library department to sustain the $50 million budget this year, but the surplus should be gone by the time the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Though Gimenez created the task force to tackle that funding gap and presided over the group for five meetings, his memo remains silent on whether he thinks the increase is a good idea. In an interview this week, Gimenez said he was not ready to recommend increasing the library tax.

The memo outlines three scenarios for the library system.

The first envisions a flat library tax, which would force the system’s $50 million budget to drop 40 percent to $30 million. To make the numbers work, Miami-Dade would keep all 49 branches open but impose staff cuts and reduce service hours countywide by about 35 percent.

The second scenario assumes the library tax increases enough to fund the current $50 million budget. The current tax costs $17.25 for every $100,000 of a property’s assessed value, and would need to increase to $28.40 in order to deliver $50 million to libraries. The current $50 million budget represents a 38 percent drop from when Gimenez first came into office three years ago, and the ongoing cutbacks have forced layoffs, drops in service and a children’s-book budget down 60 percent in 36 months.

To restore some benefits with a $50 million budget, the report recommends a 15 percent drop in hours, then using the extra dollars to resume Sunday hours in large libraries, double the materials budget and switch some computers to laptops and tablets.

A third scenario contemplates a budget somewhere above $50 million, though no higher figure is specified. A wish list from library administrators seeks about $750,000 in the first year to expand a popular youth-video program, $250,000 to create a start-up incubator and $450,000 for a roving technology center on wheels.

“We all agree that libraries are a center of family and civic life, providing gathering places for learning and discovery,’’ Gimenez wrote.

If the mayor can win passage of a new funding source, Miami-Dade could fund line items in the library budget as well as send dollars to parks, museums and other needs under the categories outlined in his memo.

He credited the idea to the task force, saying that the group “discussed the need to look more broadly at ways to strengthen those key areas of our work that are making this a great community for our families and children.

“I believe it is important to gauge what investments need to be made in programs and services that provide children and families with greater opportunities for learning, recreating and creativity in our libraries, parks and cultural amenities,’’ he continued. “In the coming weeks, you will receive an additional update on this work.”