Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade mayor fights for transit-fare hike

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has two weeks to lock up support for his 2015 budget among county commissioners, who revealed their resistance to unpopular fee and fare hikes in an unexpected insurrection early Friday morning.

Of particular concern was a proposed increase to Metrobus and Metrorail fares — to $2.50 from $2.25 — that, if rejected, would create a new $7.6 million budget hole that Gimenez said could force his administration to revive a plan to eliminate some bus routes.

“We didn’t think there were the votes, or the stomach, from these commissioners to redo the routes,” he said after the budget hearing, which began at 5:01 p.m. Thursday and ended at 12:47 a.m. Friday. “We’ll look at that again.”

After midnight, commissioners threatened to throw the $6.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 into turmoil over several issues. But they ended up giving it their grudging approval, at least for now. A second a final hearing and vote is scheduled for Sept. 18.

The first hearing went smoothly for seven hours Thursday, including 2 1/2 hours of public comment. During more than four hours of commission discussion, no one said a word about the higher transit fares, which Gimenez wants to raise a year early, instead of in 2016 as planned. They went up this year, too.

When it came time to vote on the portion of the budget that would authorize the hike, commissioners balked. They voted 8-5 against at 12:20 a.m. Gimenez warned of transit layoffs and bus-route reductions.

That prompted commissioners to redo their vote. Two 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 budget hinges on another contentious transit question that may also require commission approval before the budget is finalized. Waiving an annual $5.9 million cash influx to the transit department would require support from two-thirds of the board unless a citizens’ committee endorses the waiver.

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 fees in the water and sewer department, including those for people who repeatedly turn in incomplete construction plans. In all, the fees are projected to bring in $500,000 next year.

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 quickly returned.

Later, the question over funding the police body cameras led to another commission challenge. Opposed by the police union, the camera 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.

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 the mayor emphasized they still need to approve actual purchase of the devices in the months ahead. Voting in opposition were Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Javier Souto.

“Those who are against it, I think, are swimming against the tide of history,” Gimenez said before the vote. He later blamed the pushback on union efforts.

“Absolutely I’m fighting the police union there,” he said. “You could see exactly what was going on.”

Despite the post-midnight upheaval, commissioners kept the tax ceiling they set two months ago. It represents a slight tax hike to benefit public libraries.

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.

In other budget news, Gimenez’s budget office announced that the 2015 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.

Still on the chopping block is Boot Camp, a program to reduce recidivism among youth offenders that the county has long touted as successful. Commissioners said repeatedly that they hope to save it.

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