Miami-Dade County

Higher water fees on the line as Miami-Dade nears final budget approval Thursday night

Miami-Dade County commissioners are scheduled to vote on higher water fees for residents at the final budget hearing on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018.
Miami-Dade County commissioners are scheduled to vote on higher water fees for residents at the final budget hearing on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. Getty Images

Most of Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed 2019 budget easily cleared its first hearing two weeks ago, but the planned hike in water fees passed without a vote to spare. Now the administration is considering a lower rate to win support for the $7.8 billion budget when it faces its final vote Thursday night.

The extra $4 that would appear each month on water bills amounts to nearly a 10 percent increase for the typical resident, who currently pays about $42 every 30 days, according to county statistics. The proposed increase follows five years of higher rates and fees for Miami-Dade’s more than 400,000 water customers as the county grapples with 14,000 miles of neglected pipes and a sewer system under a federal court order to improve.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez, one of the five no votes against the water-fee hikes on Sept. 6, said Miami-Dade shouldn’t brush off the financial consequences of a higher monthly bill for residents. “It’s a substantial increase for the standard household,” he said.

Gimenez said Wednesday he has asked administrators to justify the proposed $3 increase in monthly water rates and an extra $1 monthly fee for drainage projects for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

“I’ll be meeting with my folks tonight to see what is really absolutely necessary,” he said. “We have to be ahead of sea-level rise and climate change, and we want to make sure we have the money for that. If [the proposed rate increase is] what’s needed for that ... I’ll have to push for it.”

In a string of votes approving the three-volume budget earlier this month, commissioners broke off the few lines of legislation needed to approve water rates. That passed 7 to 5, with Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Joe Martinez, Rebeca Sosa, and Javier Souto joining Suarez on the No side.

If one Yes vote had switched, the measure would have failed in a 6-to-6 tie. Commission chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo had stepped away from the dais for all of the budget votes, so he could swing the decision on water rates after the public budget hearing that begins at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Stephen Clark Government Center in downtown Miami.

The first budget hearing drew a modest crowd of constituents and groups who wanted to make their pitches for county funding before the 13-member board.

Gimenez’s budget proposal keeps most property tax rates flat, but the countywide tax that pays for borrowing authorized by voters would increase from $40.75 for every $100,000 of taxable value to $46.44. That amounts to a less than 1 percent increase in the combined tax rate for a property that pays county taxes for libraries, fire stations and municipal services. The proposed 2019 combined tax rate is $976.43 for every $100,000 of taxable value, up from $970.74.

Security boosts in the wake of February’s Parkland school massacre are part of the most substantial spending increases. There’s a one-time expenditure of about $20 million — most of it overtime wages — to post county police officers at suburban schools in order to comply with a state law requiring at least one armed guard at each school. Another $15 million goes to a new division of “rapid response” patrol squads to respond to mass shootings or other crises.

Miami-Dade has some of the lowest water rates in the country, and the proposed higher fees in 2019 would still leave its Water and Sewer Department short-staffed, according to the budget. It lists about $3.5 million in unfunded needs, including more than 30 staff positions required to increase repairs and keep the water and sewer systems running. Another $3 billion is needed for unfunded construction projects for new water facilities, sewage-treatment plants and other upgrades.

Miami-Dade estimates it has about $11 billion in water and sewer work ahead of it in the coming decade and beyond, and the projects will be paid by borrowing against water fees paid by households and businesses. Most of the work involves the sewage system, including a state requirement to all but eliminate the flow of treated sewage into the ocean. Low-flow washers and other conservation measures have also cut into the revenue growth that comes with an expanding population, even as payroll expenses and construction costs continue to climb.

Kevin Lynskey, the agency director, said the department historically has put off maintenance projects to close revenue gaps, contributing to burst sewage pipes and other breakdowns requiring emergency repairs. While the county is trying to catch up, he said spending restrictions still have the agency avoiding some upgrades that it should be performing.

When water fees don’t go up as they should “we’ve always done the same thing — and the same thing I will do — which is defer maintenance,” Lynskey said. “In the last 20 or 25 years, the federal government has swooped in three times because we did not maintain our system.”