Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade taxes go up slightly under final budget

Jorge Pérez chats with Adolfo Henriques as the Miami-Dade County Commission holds its second and final budget hearing.
Jorge Pérez chats with Adolfo Henriques as the Miami-Dade County Commission holds its second and final budget hearing. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Miami-Dade nonprofits showed up in force Thursday for a last-minute appeal to county commissioners to reverse planned budget cuts to charity grants.

The grants to organizations that provide social services were one of the few remaining sticking points in Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed $6.2 billion government budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Minutes into the public hearing, Gimenez announced that some of the charities — 27 that offer in some cases multiple meals programs to seniors and the poor — would be spared the 10 percent across-the-board cut. Planned savings in the mayor’s office and the budget department would pay for the extra $360,000.

“I’ll sleep well tonight,” Loretta De Vries, chairwoman of the Dialysis Food Foundation, said after a reporter told her the nonprofit made the list of agencies having their funding restored.

The largest contingent in the audience was from Farm Share, an organization that donates food to the hungry. Wearing matching dark green T-shirts, they thanked the mayor for finding the money — and asked for more, though that request was met with chuckles from the dais.

But not all charities were as lucky. Those that aren’t in the meals business — nonprofits aimed at serving children and the disabled, for example — still got cut. Among the charities still on the reduction list was Best Buddies, which faces a $10,000 hit.

“Before Best Buddies, I didn’t think I could make any new changes in my life,” Shelby Larson, holding back tears, told commissioners as her volunteer “buddy,” Elizabeth Bijanoi, stood by her side at the lectern. “Best Buddies has given me the confidence to tell jokes and make friends with other people.”

Later in the evening, commissioners also did away with a 10 percent cut to a $1 million small-business grant program — known as “Mom and Pop” — by taking $105,000 from a capital-outlay reserve.

The hearing began at 5:06 p.m. and finished at 10:25 p.m. Commissioners gave final approval to the budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The budget was passed in a series of votes — one for each special property-tax rate. Support was not unanimous for all of them. The closest vote, 7-5, was for the portion of the budget that includes higher water-and-sewer fees. Commissioner Lynda Bell was absent.

Four commissioners, Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Javier Souto and Juan C. Zapata, voted against the library-tax hike. In all, the budget increases the county’s combined tax rate less than 1 percent over this year.

Most of the thorny matters — and there had been many — were resolved before Thursday. Police layoffs were averted. A 25-cent increase to Metrobus and Metrorail fares was scrapped. A Boot Camp for youth offenders was saved.

“You brought this budget a very long way,” Commissioner Dennis Moss told Gimenez. “When we first started off, it was a mess.”

Gimenez underscored that point early on, in an apparent response to criticism that his initial spending plan envisioned a far bleaker outlook.

“It took what started as a worst-case scenario and turned into what was the best-possible scenario,” he said.

But not all commissioners were satisfied.

“Folks, there is still plenty of fat to streamline in this county,” said Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who advocated pay cuts for county workers making more than $100,000. “We’re not doing what we ought to be doing.”

More than 300 county jobs were still planned to be eliminated, but Gimenez said he planned to save many of them with new labor deals still needing final approval by union members. Five of the county’s 10 collective-bargaining units have agreed to the new deal, which includes a redesigned health-insurance plan with less-generous benefits. Only two of those agreements have been ratified by members, and all contracts still require commission approval.

Despite pleas from the arts community, Gimenez declined to restore a $1.4 million increase for the Pérez Art Museum Miami — money that was in his initial budget but later redirected to police. Jorge Pérez, the condo magnate and namesake benefactor of PAMM, briefly attended the meeting but did not speak.

Later, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro urged giving the museum the original increase, citing both PAMM and its downtown neighbor under construction, the Frost Museum of Science. He also wanted additional funding for the Miami Children’s Museum, which is in his district, though he later dropped that request. Before the hearing, the museum’s colorful mascot, MiChiMu, greeted visitors at the County Hall lobby.

“The reinvestment we’ve had in that area, and the uptick in property values we’re cashing in on … is because of these facilities coming into fruition,” Barreiro said. “We need to keep them whole. We need to keep this wave going.”

Separately, Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa asked Gimenez to draft a plan to benefit about 2,000 non-unionized employees under the mayor’s purview who have continued to give up pay that has been restored to workers represented by collective-bargaining units.

Gimenez said he’s considering a one-time bonus for at least some of those employees, perhaps the ones making less than $100,000 or $75,000. But he wouldn’t commit to a plan and suggested the commission organize a special meeting later this month to tackle the issue.

Still in the budget was $1 million for 500 police body cameras, which some commissioners questioned at an initial budget hearing earlier this month.

John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association, called them “trinkets” and suggested money for the gear might be better spent at the food pantries for the needy. The union has filed a grievance over the plan.

“I’m not standing up here saying that we’re opposed to it. But I’m opposed to the way it’s been presented,” he said. “It simply has not been vetted out.”

Police brass has been looking into the cameras for months, Gimenez responded.

More than 100 people signed up to speak at Thursday’s hearing, though not all ended up behind the lectern. Their requests ran the gamut. Parks supervisors criticized Gimenez’s plan to turn staffers into part-timers. A speaker who called for coordination among animal-services groups introduced himself as “The Dog Barker” and actually barked into the microphone.

And 18-year-old Al Alexandre, a self-described spoken-word poet, recited from memory a searing piece on homelessness.

“If home is where the heart is, and I’m homeless, does that make me heartless?” he said. Alexandre is one of the stars of the Word Speak program at Miami’s Tigertail Productions — one of the nonprofits facing a 10-percent cut to its $50,000 in county funding.

Commissioners seemed resigned to some of the reductions, even if they weren’t happy about them.

“It is a whole lot better than where we started,” Commissioner Jean Monestime said. “Even though some of us are not fully satisfied … I do hope we do better in the future.”

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