Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade commission vote for slight property-tax rate hike to help libraries

In the parking lot outside Miami-Dade County Hall, a banner for the Coalition to Save Our Libraries reads, “Save our libraries because an intelligent community is priceless.”
In the parking lot outside Miami-Dade County Hall, a banner for the Coalition to Save Our Libraries reads, “Save our libraries because an intelligent community is priceless.” Miami Herald Staff

Miami-Dade County commissioners voted Tuesday night to slightly raise the property-tax rate ceiling to avert library layoffs. But the increase won’t protect police, transit and other public services facing budget cuts.

Libraries aside, commissioners adopted the other tax rates proposed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, which had been designed to keep the overall rate flat while giving a funding boost to libraries. Now Gimenez will have to decide whether to veto the commission’s 8-5 decision to boost the library tax higher than he recommended.

“I’m going to have to consider my actions,” he told reporters after the meeting. “But everything else is what I wanted.”

Still on the table are more than 200 police layoffs, less-frequent parks maintenance and an increase to transit fares. Gimenez’s proposal would eliminate nearly 600 county jobs if the county is unable to extract union concessions. A significant chunk would come from police ranks.

Commissioners sounded unhappy about police layoffs and other fee hikes, including higher transit fares for the disabled — but not enough to buck Gimenez as they did with libraries.

“We have a government that in a way is undermining public safety,” Commissioner Jean Monestime said. “In my community, people are asking me for more in terms of public safety.”

Under the commission plan, the overall county tax rate would go up by 0.75 percent compared to this year. But because that rate is made up of six individual rates, the actual increase to the library tax — whose rate is relatively small — would be 19 percent.

A homeowner in an unincorporated area such as Kendall with a taxable value of $200,000 would pay $14 more to the county than this year. That’s without taking into account higher property values, which went up by an average of 6.7 percent across the county.

Patricia Gormley, a lawyer and leading organizer of a library-funding campaign, greeted the vote with a mixed verdict.

“We are obviously happy that nobody [in libraries] will be laid off,” said Gormley, whose husband works in the library system. “But the ability to provide enhanced services at the library is still limited. All we did is save the jobs.”

Gimenez trumpeted commissioners’ votes on the other tax rates — which fund the fire department and all other county services — as a clear message to labor unions that commissioners prefer pay and benefit concessions from employees to asking homeowners to pay much more in taxes.

“It sends a signal to most of the unions that commissioners want the concessions to continue,” he said. “Let’s sit down and solve this.”

The 8-5 vote leaves Gimenez with 10 days to decide whether to veto the decision by the 13-member commission. A two-thirds vote of commissioners present is required to override a mayoral veto.

If Gimenez were to wield his veto pen, commissioners would likely have to take up the question again later this month, before their annual summer break in August.

Commissioners agreed to set the library tax-rate ceiling high enough that they could eventually authorize $8 million more than the $44 million Gimenez proposed, bringing the library budget to $52 million. That’s more than the $50 million it had this year — but far less than the $64 million that advocates wanted.

Though they won’t vote on a final budget and tax rate until September, in practice commissioners may lower — but not raise — the rate after property owners are notified in August of their likely bills.

Voting in favor of the higher library ceiling were Monestime, vice-chairwoman Lynda Bell and commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Dennis Moss and Xavier Suarez. Voting against were chairwoman Rebeca Sosa and commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Javier Souto and Juan C. Zapata.

Bell, Diaz, Monestime and Souto face reelection next month.

An earlier attempt to bring the tax rate high enough to fund the libraries at $64 million a year failed. So did a vote to keep the rate for the fire department flat. The fire rate went down to accommodate more library funds, though Gimenez said that won’t result in fire-service cuts.

The strongest support for Gimenez’s budget came from Zapata, who chastised the county for putting off cutbacks he considers necessary for the long term.

“For far too long, we’ve failed to budget and plan for the future,” he said.

Gimenez says those reductions and fee hikes could go away if the county ends pay perks for unionized employees. About $40 million tied to property taxes are slated to “snap back” on Oct. 1 if no new labor contracts are in place. Gimenez also wants unions to agree to less generous healthcare benefits to save Miami-Dade’s general fund about $18 million next year.

Some commissioners sounded open to the insurance-plan idea but wanted more details.

“If we want to have a first-class workforce, we need to have first-class pay,” Monestime said.

One county employee told commissioners that the givebacks of the past few years have hit him hard.

“My salary is $45,593,” said Dwayne Symonette, a court-records specialist and father of two. “That’s the working poor. That’s not a lavish lifestyle.”

Fear of cuts drew more than 100 people to county hall who urged commissioners for more than three hours to raise the tax rate — called the “millage” — despite Gimenez’s potential veto.

“Please raise my millage,” said Justin Wales, a recent homebuyer advocating for more library funds. “I want to pay more money.”

Speaker after speaker praised the library system as a haven for children, seniors and the unemployed, who rely on librarian assistance to write résumés and apply for new jobs.

Librarian Ellen Book brought a cart full of children’s books for the 13 commissioners. “The age of the physical book is far from over,” Book said as commissioners perused the offerings, including pop-up books on baby dinosaurs and race cars.

Without the higher library rate, Gimenez’s budget would have eliminated 90 library positions.

There were also other service reductions and fee hikes that troubled residents.

The speakers’ podium was lowered twice to accommodate people on wheelchairs protesting the plan to increase disabled-transit fares. Gimenez’s budget initially called for the cost per ride to go up to $5 from $3.50, though he has since asked his budget director to cap the fares at $4. All Metrobus and Metrorail fares would go up to $2.50 from $2.25.

Mike Lantz, who is blind, spoke against the plan, escorted to the podium by a sergeant-at-arms.

“A lot of disabled people are going to be stuck in their homes,” he said. “Please keep the disabled going out and enjoying life.”

But not everyone in the public hearing criticized the mayor’s stance.

Richard Block, a retired state worker who serves on the Virginia Gardens City Council, said property owners can’t afford tax hikes year after year.

“It’s a chip-away mentality,” he said. “It’s a couple of bucks here. It’s a couple of bucks there. What about the people on fixed incomes?”

This article was updated to correct the percentage increase in countywide property tax-rates commissioners approved. The potential increase is .75 percent, not .47 percent.