Miami-Dade County

Miami commissioners weigh tough budget decisions

The city of Miami can add 100 cops to its police force starting next year. But that could mean denying scores of workers a living wage, nixing a half-million dollars in beautification and drainage projects and further delaying a backlog in repairs at parks and municipal buildings — not to mention possibly falling back into reckless spending habits.

City Manager Daniel Alfonso released that information early Thursday evening to commissioners in a memo detailing the latest on the city’s finances as elected officials prepare to craft a roughly $550 million budget.

As requested by the commission last month, the document included a series of cuts Alfonso said would have to be made in order to find the $6.6 million to create the 100 new police positions — 80 more than what he and Mayor Tomás Regalado had recommended — and set aside another $2 million for an anti-poverty initiative. But Alfonso warned officials not to go that route.

“The administration does not view this as sustainable in the long-term,” Alfonso wrote.

Instead, Alfonso suggested the city hire only half the new officers sought by elected officials and fund less than half the anti-poverty initiative, at a cost of about $3.6 million.

Whether commissioners agree might be determined Tuesday during the first of two budget hearings that are likely to be crowded. Residents groups have vowed to show up in force to lobby for more cops, and three of the city’s four unions are planning to protest the results of their ongoing contract negotiations.

Alfonso said Thursday evening that it’s all a balancing act. He said the city, for the first time in five years, has money to spend on a backlog of maintenance needs, like $300,000 for new carpeting at the Miami Riverside Center and $500,000 to fix a police records room that leaks so badly when it rains that employees put out kiddie pools to catch the water.

He said throwing that money into recurring employee expenses and increasing employee salaries, as expected during ongoing negotiations, could further delay those repairs. Plus, the city’s pension obligations have topped $80 million again this year, and new employees come with new retirement debt. When pension costs topped $100 million in 2010, the commission unilaterally cut benefits to fill a massive budget hole.

“That’s why we feel the 55 net new officers is the more sustainable long-term approach,” said Alfonso, who is also pushing to fully restore the city’s reserves to $100 million.

Commissioners Marc Sarnoff and Francis Suarez, the two main proponents for hiring dozens more cops, don’t necessarily agree the situation would be dire. Sarnoff said Thursday evening that he’s not as gung-ho about restoring Miami’s reserves, and that the city “took its medicine” in 2010 to ensure pensions don’t balloon back to unsustainable levels.

Suarez said delaying maintenance projects might not be an issue — but crime will be.

“I don’t hear people coming to our budget meetings complaining about the carpet in our buildings. They’re complaining about crime in their neighborhoods,” Suarez said.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how much the city will give back to its employees, who gave up millions in salary and pensions during the recession to help the city balance its cash-strapped budget. Now that Miami has money to play with, the city’s unions are demanding their pay be restored to 2009 levels. And the $5.5 million Alfonso has offered to all employee groups isn’t satisfying them.

“It’s pennies that we’re being offered,” said Sean Moy, president of AFSCME local 1907, which represents about 1,000 employees.

With significant condo and commercial projects coming online soon, it’s likely Miami’s property-tax revenues will only grow next year. But Alfonso said a measured budget is the smart approach in 2015.

“Last year we added 35 net new officer positions. This year would be 55,” Alfonso said. “To go beyond that, if it’s the will of the commission, then the administration will carry it out.”