Miami-Dade commissioners gave early approval this week to a $7.8 billion spending plan for 2019 after a fairly tranquil budget hearing during which members of the public pressed for more help in housing, social services and police oversight.
A relatively modest crowd brought out a few dozen speakers for the first of two evening budget hearings Thursday evening, events that have drawn hundreds of speakers in past years and stretched past midnight. This hearing lasted less than four hours and ended around 9 p.m.
“This is the least people I’ve seen at a budget meeting in 16 years,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz.
With property tax rates mostly flat — one tax that pays for voter-authorized debt causes an overall increase of less than 1 percent — and no major service cuts, Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed 2019 budget has yet to draw notable opposition.
But the criticism and requests at Thursday’s budget hearing highlighted the broad trends causing strain in county finances: desperate needs for more affordable-housing aid; a transit system facing a revenue squeeze; and a shortage of social services in a community with one of the widest divides between rich and poor in the nation.
Most residents are likely to feel the impact of the proposed budget in their water bills. The proposal includes a $4 monthly increase to pay for repairs, water plants, flooding control and other projects.
For properties that pay all county taxes — including taxes for municipal services, fire stations and libraries for areas that don’t receive those services from cities — the 2019 tax rate would be $976.43 for every $100,000 of taxable value. That’s up less than 1 percent from $970.74 in 2018.
Libraries would stop collecting late fees for books and extend their hours. Miami-Dade would hire more police and fire recruits, increase the frequency of grass cutting along roads and pay the debt needed to continue replacing failing buses and Metrorail trains.
A large chunk of the new spending in the budget will go to security. Miami-Dade is spending $20 million to station county police officers at some suburban schools, part of a requirement in a state law passed after the Feb. 14 Parkland massacre that the county’s school system is expected to pay for in 2019. Gimenez also wants to spend about $15 million on rapid-response police squads whose main mission would be to wait for a mass shooting or some other emergency requiring a larger police presence.
The county’s police department gets about $560 million in general fund dollars, a source of money that’s about 80 percent property-tax revenue. The county’s social-services department gets $33 million.
Several speakers asked county commissioners to spend more money helping low-income residents.
Mahlia Lindquist, executive director of LEAP, a charity that works with women released from prison, said her organization needs help getting clients to the many visits to parole officers, treatment centers and other far-flung destinations required for parolees. “I have begged for the last two years for bus passes,” Lindquist said. With those apparently out of reach, she’s asked for county money to let her clients use Lyft to get to their appointments.
Lyle Grandison brought more than a dozen men in khaki T-shirts to the well of the commission chambers to support his push for more county dollars for the Circle of Brotherhood program, a nonprofit that focuses on curbing youth violence. “We could make Miami-Dade No. 1 in reducing gun violence,” Grandison said. “It would surely be robbery if we didn’t have money to get the boots on the ground.”
The vote on the final budget, including charity grants, is set for 5 p.m. on Sept 20. The meeting starts with a second budget hearing where the public can speak on any topic in the three-volume budget.
Most of the eight ordinances needed to approve the $7.8 billion budget passed easily just before 9 p.m. Thursday. Several ordinances passed unanimously; the closest was the legislation that included special taxing districts, which passed 7-5. Voting against were Diaz and Commissioners Joe Martinez, Xavier Suarez, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto.
Miami-Dade has more than $200 million in the budget tied to affordable housing, but the county’s housing director, Michael Liu, told commissioners the county needs more to meet needs in the community. “While $225 million is a lot of money,” he said, “it’s not enough.”
Several speakers asked for money to fund a program that doesn’t yet exist: a civilian oversight board that could investigate allegations of misconduct by police and other county employees. Commissioner Barbara Jordan has been fighting with Gimenez and police unions to revive one for Miami-Dade, and she received support from speakers urging the county to fund a panel that at one point had a projected budget of $750,0000 a year.
The review panel “will promote community trust and respect for police and other public employees,” said Christopher Benjamin, head of the legal redress committee for the local NAACP branch. “And it will build bridges between the community and law enforcement.”
Commissioner Audrey Edmonson called for more county services to find temporary homes for people with no place to live. “My office gets a lot of calls for help from homeless people,” she said.
Several commissioners pressed Gimenez on more transit funding, citing a string of service cuts in recent years to cope with declining ridership and other budget pressures.
“People are stacked up and overcrowded in the existing buses because of the cuts in service,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, pointing to South Dade routes in her district. Commissioner Javier Souto said Miami-Dade needs to pay for the same kind of free trolleys in the suburbs that cities provide with their share of the county’s transportation tax. That the county doesn’t have a fleet of free trolleys is “ridiculous,” Souto said. “Unbelievable.”
Gimenez said Miami-Dade has already baked into its forecasts an expected loss of millions of dollars in property-tax revenue from a statewide referendum that would boost deductions for primary residences. The proposed 2019 budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 projects some deficits in later years but lacks the severe cuts, payroll reductions and other austerity measures imposed in the aftermath of the 2008 housing crash.
“This budget is not perfect,” Gimenez said. “None are.”