David Winker, his wife and his 5-year-old daughter, Cristina, have been regulars at Grapeland Water Park since she was 2. Winker, 48, fondly recalls the park’s “dive-in” movie nights and the look on Cristina’s face after she plunges down a water slide — a look of accomplishment.
“It’s an amazing water park. It has a lazy river. It has a wading pool,” he said. “It’s a great facility for the kids.”
But under the city’s proposed spending plan for the upcoming budget year, the city of Miami is cutting Grapeland’s hours of operation, so the park will open for the season starting Memorial Day, instead of spring break at the end of March. During the last fiscal year, Grapeland was open from spring break until Labor Day on weekends and every day from Memorial Day to mid-August. The park is also open for limited hours from October through March.
In comparison, Broward County’s Tropical Splash water park is open from spring break in March to Labor Day, though only on weekends during April and May.
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Miami’s parks and recreation department will save $500,000 by reducing hours, according to the city’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. No jobs will be cut, according to the department, but seasonal staff will work fewer weeks.
“If approved by the Commission, Grapeland Water Park operations would be shortened to Memorial Day through Labor Day, representing a savings of $500,000 to the city while still offering children a safe and fun place to enjoy themselves while on summer break,” a city spokesperson wrote in a statement.
Taxpayers won’t necessarily feel those savings, though: The reduction is part of the city’s efforts to increase its available funds for legal settlements with two unions and labor negotiations. The proposed budget sets aside $14 million for that purpose.
“We have challenged ourselves to find ways to make this labor negotiations and settlements reserve as large as possible,” City Manager Emilio González stated in a note included in the budget proposal. “All departments have worked together to identify certain reductions that generally have a lesser impact on city services to afford a labor reserve of this magnitude.”
Winker, an attorney and real estate broker who lives in Shenandoah, said there already aren’t enough pools in the area and called the city’s move short-sighted, because parks can make neighborhoods more desirable. His daughter is in the process of learning how to swim.
“Great cities have great parks,” he said. “It’s the wrong place to look to squeeze money.”
The cutbacks at Grapeland are part of an effort across Miami’s government to squirrel away dollars in anticipation of union expenses that administrators believe will be compounded by slowing growth in property tax revenue and an anticipated expansion of the homestead exemption. The administration also wants to eliminate 59 civilian job that have been vacant for almost a year.
The City Commission on Thursday will consider final approval of Mayor Francis Suarez’s proposed $1 billion budget for the 2019 fiscal year. The total tax rate will remain the same, though with some fiscal maneuvering — the regular property tax rate will increase while the rate for collecting taxes to pay off debt will decrease by the same amount. For homeowners whose property value increased last year — almost everyone — the total tax bill will increase.
According to González’s budget message, his staff is preparing for the approval of three labor agreements with unions that represent the majority of the city’s 4,000-person workforce — police, fire and general employees — as well as legal settlements stemming from lawsuits over the city’s decision to cut pay and pension contributions during the recession in 2010. The Florida Supreme Court in March 2017 struck down those cuts, leaving taxpayers owing pensioners a large sum — estimated by one consultant to be as high as $213 million.
During the first budget hearing Sept. 13, Suarez told commissioners that the city had reached tentative agreements on labor contracts with all three unions and settlements for the pension litigation.
“I hope to bring these contracts to the City Commission for approval very soon,” Suarez told commissioners.
Other spending proposals:
▪ Expansion of beautification work program for homeless. The city could spend $63,000 to create five new positions on a program run by the Downtown Development Authority to employ workers among Miami’s homeless, giving them jobs picking up litter, cleaning graffiti, eliminating weeds and doing other landscaping work.
▪ Inspection, repair and renovation of the Brickell Key Bridge. The city could set aside $160,000 for the project.
▪ $50,000 for water quality testing in Biscayne Bay.
Administrators want to dip into reserves to fund some of these new initiatives while searching for new revenue sources elsewhere. A plan to increase parking rates citywide is still being hashed out after commissioners asked for the Miami Parking Authority to lessen the hike for residents who register with the parking agency. Commissioners won’t consider the final parking rate plan, which is expected to bring in an additional $6 million for the city, until October.