Miami-Dade County

Miami approves $558 million budget at 2:30 a.m.; dozens of new cops in plan

Determined to bolster the city’s police force, Miami commissioners ignored the advice of their city manager and found funding for dozens of new cops early Wednesday morning by taking a scalpel to a proposed $558 million budget.

Commissioners voted 4-1 about 2:30 a.m. to budget 80 new police positions, carving out space for the millions in additional public safety expenses by nixing maintenance projects at city facilities. They also agreed to spend $1.25 million on an anti-poverty initiative.

The vote was the first of two, with the final to come during a Sept. 23 budget hearing.

Both the additions to the police department and poverty dollars were far more than what was recommended by City Manager Daniel Alfonso and Mayor Tomas Regalado, who said commissioners could be setting the city up for future years where expenses exceed revenues. Budgeting new police officers won’t be too expensive next year, Alfonso said, because it will take months to hire them all. But the cost will be higher in 2016.

“I just don’t think the manager can say this is sustainable,” Regalado told commissioners.

For now, though, the city can easily set aside money to hire more cops. Miami’s 2015 budget grew by about $34 million over last year thanks largely to increased property tax revenues driven by new development. Commissioners found money for new police positions by cutting capital expenses and transferring about $2.6 million from the city’s Omni and Overtown community redevelopment agencies to fund police.

They also set aside tens of millions of dollars in Miami’s reserves, bringing the city’s rainy day fund above $100 million for the first time since the recent recession. They may need some of that money next year, if the city’s projected tax revenue growth doesn’t pan out and the cost of paying for dozens new cops — and likely better salaries — proves too much.

Still, commissioners Francis Suarez and Marc Sarnoff said adding more cops to Miami’s department was crucial in combatting crime. Sarnoff said by adding 80 officers, Miami would bring its per-capita police staffing to three officers per 1,000 residents, a level he called an acceptable benchmark.

“All due respect, I want to get to three cops per thousand,” he said Wednesday morning, at the tail-end of a nine hour budget hearing.

Of course, the city has to be able to hire new cops to make that happen. And Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police remains skeptical that will ever take place given the city’s recent hiring struggles. The union was among several to protest the budget hearing Tuesday, and believes the city would be better off improving pay for the officers through ongoing contract talks than trying to spend money on new cops.

FOP president Javier Ortiz reminded commissioners that the city has more staff backgrounding prospective police hires than investigating homicide cases. “How about you stop trying to get concessions from your cops when the city isn’t hurting anymore?” he said.

Dozens of employees attended the meeting and wore black shirts handed out to all city employees who wanted one. Some told commissioners that after bearing the brunt of budget cuts in 2010 — when Miami was on the brink of financial disaster and had $13 million in reserves — employees deserved to be rewarded now that times are good.

“The city now is reaping the harvest and we want to share in some of that harvest,” said Joe Simmons, Jr., president of the AFSCME chapter that represents Miami’s waste haulers.

The unions also gave city officials a little smack before the hearing: a large, rolling billboard featuring Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso as Rich Uncle Pennybags “playing games” with public coin above a Miami boardwalk. Alfonso took it in stride, posing all smiles for pictures with protesting employees before the hearing began.

He mostly had reason to smile. The budget as tentatively approved brings the city’s reserves back in line with Miami’s own policies. And the city’s tax rate is dropping once again, dipping slightly to $8.38 per $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. Alfonso did recommend only 61 new officer positions and $750,000 for Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s anti-poverty initiative, and warned that spending more could put the city in a difficult position in the future. But he said the city accomplished alot in his spending plan.

Others hope it will accomplish much for them as well.

A number of volunteers and supporters of Curley’s House, for instance, asked commissioners to help the struggling Overtown food kitchen through the money they set aside for Hardemon’s anti-poverty initiative. They said the non-profit feeds thousands each year on a “shoestring budget.” One volunteer, Brenda Graham, shared a story about having only one slice of bread and a jar of peanut butter to feed two kids.

“I’m asking you for more money so we can get the jelly to put with that peanut butter,” she said.