Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade commissioners push back on transit-fare hikes, police cameras in budget

After midnight Friday, Miami-Dade commissioners threatened to throw the 2015 budget into turmoil — but ended up giving it their grudging approval, at least for now.

A budget hearing that had gone smoothly for seven hours Thursday came close to becoming a train wreck Friday when the board mounted an unexpected insurrection over a proposed increase to Metrobus and Metrorail fares.

None of them had said a word during more than four hours of discussion about increasing the fares to $2.50 from $2.25. But when it came time to vote on the portion of the budget that would authorize the hike, commissioners balked.

They voted 5-8 against, which would have created a $7.6 million hole in the transit budget. Mayor Carlos Gimenez warned he would come back in two weeks with proposed layoffs and cuts to bus routes.

That prompted commissioners to redo their vote. Two commissioners switched sides and allowed the hike to go through — but did not hide their discontent.

“I think we’re still in the process of recovering from a recession,” Commissioner Jean Monestime said.

The hearing began at 5:01 p.m. Thursday and ended at 12:47 a.m. Friday. Commissioners are scheduled to take final votes on the county’s $6.2 billion budget after a second public hearing Sept. 18.

Two other matters appeared poised to derail the spending plan in the wee hours Friday: a water-and-sewer fee hike and a budget set-aside for 500 police “body cameras.” In the end, both measures were approved, but not before drama inside the commission chambers.

Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, chairman of the board’s infrastructure committee, opposed raising so-called “recovery” fees in the water and sewer department. Director Bill Johnson — a County Hall veteran who in a lighter moment hours earlier had joked he was “in the doo-doo business” — stormed to the lectern, his face turning an intense shade of red.

“You’re literally going to risk the entire capital program? Whatever,” he said before walking away in a huff. He later returned.

Later, the question over funding the police body cameras led to another commission challenge. Opposed by the police union, the effort requires a $1 million allocation in 2015.

“I don’t want to want to see what happened in Ferguson happen in Miami-Dade County,” Gimenez said, referring to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Violent unrest followed over allegations of police misconduct that have yet to result in charges.

Commissioners who moved to strip the camera item from the budget called the proposal rushed.

“A couple of weeks ago, this wasn’t on anybody’s radar,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman, chairwoman of the public safety committee. “Why does it need to be right now, in this budget?”

Gimenez has made the camera plan a centerpiece of his public agenda, and on Thursday announced the local NAACP chapter endorsed his effort. Commissioners ultimately voted 11-2 to keep the cameras in the budget, after Gimenez emphasized they still need to approve actual purchase of the devices in the months ahead.

After the vote, with Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Javier Souto against, Gimenez blamed the pushback on union efforts. “Absolutely I’m fighting the police union there,” he said. “You could see exactly what was going on.”

The hearing had begun Thursday with dozens of people beseeching commissioners to maintain arts programs, preserve charity funding and save government jobs in the budget set for approval later this month.

Their tone was subdued, and the public comments took up 2 1/2 hours — far less than in past years.

But that worried Commissioner Monestime, who lamented that more people didn’t show up to share concerns they have made to him directly about proposed service cuts in a time of growing needs.

“There seems to be a mindset here where we continue to take from the have-nots to actually give to the haves,” said Monestime, who represents one of the poorest commission districts, covering parts of Liberty City, Little Haiti and North Miami. “I came here predisposed to have a long night. I think people have just given up — which is not very good for our community.”

Those who did attend the hearing asked for public dollars to be reshuffled or, in some cases, for the commission to further raise taxes to avoid reductions to services such as law enforcement.

“People are going to come up here and beg you not to cut this and not cut that,” said Carol Feiler, president of the Royal Country Homeowners Association. “They’re the same people who begged you not to raise their taxes.”

But Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who represents a portion of Hialeah, Miami Lakes and Palm Springs North, said elected officials needed to consider the people who cannot afford even a small property-tax increase.

“Sometimes we minimize it: Oh, that’s a café con leche or a pastelito,” Bovo said. “Folks, there are residents out there in this community where that is a luxury. There are people who turn off their air conditioners during the day. Cut their medicine in half. Cut corners beyond what we would expect them to do in this country.”

The point appeared moot: Commissioners set the tax ceiling in July and would have to take the extraordinary step of reissuing property-tax notices, at the county’s expense, to push it up now. They maintained that ceiling, which represents a slight tax hike, in a series of preliminary votes after midnight Friday.

One commissioner who had voted in July against the higher tax rate for libraries — Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa — switched her position this time around, saying her constituents seemed to support giving libraries a little more money.

Last year, imminent library closures and layoffs stirred advocates into crowding the commission chambers to demand, successfully, that enough funds be found to stave off the cuts.

The coming year’s budget appeared just as alarming at first, with some 400 police jobs on the chopping block in June. But by last week, the administration had cobbled together enough projected savings to protect all sworn police officer positions.

That leaves 48 civilian jobs in the police department at risk. Many of those employees attended Thursday’s hearing to argue that the department needs more than cops.

“We may not wear the uniform, but we are the front line,” said Jessica Hernandez, an investigative specialist. She stood behind the lectern with about a dozen of her colleagues, who perform background checks for the department. Eight of 14 people in the unit could lose their jobs, one of them said.

Another group of civilian police workers made a similar plea.

Gimenez said the jobs would be saved if members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 199 union, which represents the employees, ratify a new labor contract with a redesigned health-insurance plan. Twelve civilian police positions would still be cut despite the healthcare savings, budget director Jennifer Moon told the Miami Herald.

Several other unions have also tentatively agreed to the less-generous insurance coverage; one of them, the Government Supervisors Association of Florida OPEIU Local 100, became the first to win member approval late Thursday, Gimenez said.

Those labor deals were central to the mayor’s budget savings. Commissioners were grateful Thursday not to be facing a room full of upset police officers and their families.

Moon announced that next year’s budget would restore cuts to the county’s lawn-mowing cycle, which was squeezed this year to save money. A rainy summer left parks and roadways overgrown, and several commissioners said tall grass was the No. 1 complaint from constituents.

Some commissioners criticized Gimenez for stirring them into a frenzy with his initial sky-is-falling budget — a self-described “worst-case scenario” — only to find savings as the summer drew on.

“There’s got to be a better way,” Zapata said.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez suggested cutting top executives’ salaries, but he failed to garner enough support from his colleagues for the idea.

Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell said the mayor should have held a tougher line in labor negotiations instead of surrendering on pay concessions she strongly endorsed. Left unsaid was that Bell, a Gimenez ally, lost her reelection bid last week to a union-endorsed challenger.

“We talked about concessions,” she said. “Some of us held to that and kept our word.”

“I know the timing wasn’t the best,” Gimenez said. “And I’m sorry about that.”

He steadfastly defended the budget process, however.

“People think a budget is written in stone the day you write it,” Gimenez said. “It’s not. It’s a living document.

“No, we didn’t find money hidden in drawers,” he said. “We’ve worked this. Some assumptions were conservative and we got better news. Sometimes we got worse news, and that had to be balanced out.”

During the public hearing, library patrons and workers called for additional funding to add services, though libraries did not face the budget threat they confronted last year — thanks to a higher tax rate commissioners endorsed in July.

Administrators of community-based organizations, the charities that provide social services such as meals to seniors and assistance to the poor, opposed a 10-percent budget cut. In some cases, the agencies receive a significant portion of their budgets from county funds.

“For a small nonprofit, 10 percent hurts,” said Kametra Driver, executive director of We Care South Dade. “An across-the-board cut seems a little unjust and a little unfair.”

Commissioners said they hoped to restore that funding, though Bovo, the finance committee chairman, insisted that he could not support such a move while some 200 county-worker layoffs remain.

Separately, arts advocates pushed for Gimenez to increase funding for the Pérez Art Museum Miami. The museum was slated to get $1.4 million in addition to its current $2.5 million hotel-tax allocation before the mayor shifted the money to the police department.

“It is a great opportunity you are giving to the children and the students of this county,” said Javier Sasieta, an art teacher at Hialeah Senior High School. “I hope you will continue and increase your support of the PAMM.”

Other cultural programs would get hit too, including the Greater Miami Youth Symphony — which made its point to commissioners, fittingly, with music.

A small group of students lugged their instruments and music stands into the chambers and used their allotted two-minute speaking time to play a short “Humoresque” by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak.

“A happy song,” said Keisa Frith, the program’s director.