Miami-Dade County

Proposed Miami-Dade county budget: a new fire boat, expanded library hours, worker raises

Mayor Carlos Gimenez unveils his 2016 budget, which includes expanded hours for some libraries, increased funding for parks and new police cadet classes. Gimenez used charts on stage to illustrate some of the contents of the budget.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez unveils his 2016 budget, which includes expanded hours for some libraries, increased funding for parks and new police cadet classes. Gimenez used charts on stage to illustrate some of the contents of the budget. el Nuevo Herald staff

Miami-Dade County would expand library hours, cut the grass more often in parks and roadsides, station a second fire boat on Biscayne Bay, expand raises to non-union workers and increase hiring at its jails under a budget proposed Tuesday by Mayor Carlos Gimenez that keeps tax rates flat.

Buoyed by an extra $122 million in property-tax revenue, the 2016 spending plan breaks from the austerity themes that have defined Gimenez budgets since he came to office four years ago on a pledge to cut taxes. Facing reelection next year, his $6.8 billion budget highlights increased services and expanded hiring without any increase in property-tax rates, and even a planned hike in the debt tax has been scrapped for 2016.

Miami-Dade’s countywide tax rate would remain flat at $467 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value, plus $46 for the tax that funds voter-authorized borrowing. The county’s three other property tax rates also remain unchanged in the Gimenez budget: municipal services in unincorporated areas ($193 for every $100,000 of value); fire ($242) and library ($28). The 2016 budget year begins Oct. 1.

In unveiling his budget proposal, Gimenez continued his year-long message that Miami-Dade has “turned a corner,” allowing him to shift gears on spending cuts he imposed during a wobbly recovery that battered real estate revenues.

“Your county government has indeed turned a corner,” Gimenez said Tuesday at PortMiami, as he unveiled his budget before administration officials, political supporters and reporters. “My budget reflects that.”

Property values surged last year too, but Gimenez faced increased costs from new union benefits and a one-time loss of revenue tied to appeals of real estate appraisals. Still, critics accused Gimenez of proposing steep cuts this time last year with his proposed 2015 budget, then walking most of them back as it became clear union leaders weren’t going to offer the pay concessions he wanted. For 2016, an even stronger real estate market is boosting revenues.

The budget process began with a forecast rise in property values of 5.5 percent. Figures released on July 1 pegged that increase at over 9 percent. Gimenez’s budget shows the county’s general fund, home to most discretionary spending, topping $1.7 billion in 2016. That’s about $185 million higher than the 2015 figure.

Gimenez’s 2016 opponent, school board member Raquel Regalado, released a statement Tuesday accusing the mayor of taking credit for reversing some of his own cuts that were required following the 12 percent tax cut he secured for his first budget in 2011.

The “budget presented today is not about Miami-Dade County’s future, but about Gimenez’s past,” Regalado wrote. “Gimenez is attempting to put out the fire that has been building for 5 years, from ignoring transit needs to neglecting our public spaces. These problems were created by him and this budget asks us to forget what he has given away and failed to protect.”

County commissioners are set to take their first budget vote Tuesday, when they will set a tentative ceiling on tax rates for the notices property owners receive in August. While the rate could be changed, the vote is generally considered the last chance to raise tax rates, given the cost involved in re-mailing the notices.

Members of the public can speak at the start of the commission meeting, which begins at 9:30 a.m. at the Stephen Clark government center in downtown Miami. Marathon speaking sessions usually occur during two official budget hearings in September, as commissioners prepare to approve the budget ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline.

The budget process begins amid a mini storm over the county’s handling of special taxing districts, which maintain street lamps, security gates and landscaping for hundreds of communities. Gimenez’s proposed budget assumes higher fees for some, thanks to what administration officials describe as a recently discovered flaw in the billing division.

Daniella Levine Cava, a county commissioner urging relief for affected districts, said she’s expecting blow back during the budget process over the higher fees. “The percentage that’s affected is really going to be quite vocal,” she said.

The county’s 25,400-person payroll is set to increase by about 745 positions under Gimenez’s proposed budget, a bit less than this year’s bump of 780 positions. (The proposed payroll increase for 2016 would be 815 positions if not for the assumed loss of 70 positions at the county-owned Vizcaya museum, which Gimenez wants to privatize.) Miami-Dade employs about 1,400 fewer people than it did before Gimenez came into office, according to figures he presented Tuesday.

Water bills are set for a 6 percent increase in the 2016 budget, and trash-collection rates are staying flat despite the system’s projected deficits in the coming years. The county’s social-services agency faces scattered spending cuts that will have it outsourcing a treatment program and turning away about 15,000 people who get subsidies for electricity bills through the federal Low-Income Energy Assistance Program. The budget also includes extra money for Meals on Wheels and home-care programs.

In their budgets, park officials noted they still would need more money for after-school and summer programs, and library administrators outlined the lack of funds to upgrade computers, add evening hours and put another Bookmobile on the street. While police recruiting is set to increase by funding four new cadet classes, overall law-enforcement staffing would stay flat.

Much of the new police hiring will be used fill current vacancies, though the department expects to save money from another 220 unfilled positions by the end of 2016. The budget extends last year’s trend of the investigative division losing staff while the patrol division adds positions as Gimenez makes a priority of putting officers “on the street.”

Miami-Dade’s Corrections department enjoys the most new hiring in Gimenez’s budget, as jail administrators try to comply with a federal crackdown on chronic under-staffing in the local detention centers. Almost 200 positions would be added to Corrections’ 2,870-person payroll. Water and Sewer, funded by customer fees, is slated to add 135 positions, followed by 92 new payroll slots at Transit.

Among the other notable budget entries:

▪ Ten library branches now closed two days a week would move to a six-day schedule. They are: California Club, Coral Reef, Country Walk, Golden Glades, Hispanic, Homestead, International Mall, Kendall, Little River and Pinecrest. Libraries would also get an extra $1 million to purchase books and digital materials, a 33 percent increase from this year’s $3 million acquisitions budget.

▪ An extra $3 million for landscaping to boost lawn mowing for parks and roads. While county roadsides are slated to be mowed nine times this year, the schedule moves to 12 under the Gimenez budget. Mowing of parks would move from between 12 and 16 times a year to between 16 and 20, depending on the size of the park.

The budget also includes an additional $5 million in construction dollars for parks to address years of deferred maintenance for a department that listed $29 million in “unmet needs” for 2016.

▪  Adding 36 county firefighter positions to operate two county fire boats — one in the northern bay by Haulover Marina and one in the south, near Homestead. Gimenez cut fire boat staffing after coming into office, and has faced pressure since to restore funding. An earlier initiative to use Miami and Miami Beach firefighters to jointly operate the boats failed, Gimenez said Monday.

▪ An additional $1 million for the Pérez Art Musuem Miami, which this year received a $2.7 million operating subsidy as part of Miami-Dade’s assistance for museums.

▪ Restoring pay perks to non-union workers, which includes Gimenez’s top aides. A string of pay supplements that Gimenez successfully suspended in 2012 automatically returned in October for the county’s union workforce once their three-year contracts expired. But about 1,900 non-union workers — including county commission staffers and senior executives like deputy mayors — did not see those benefits return. Gimenez’s budget restores the perks, which include a $100 monthly bonus known as “premium pay,” a $1,100 annual healthcare stipend, and a 1.5 percent yearly bonus that kicks in after 15 years of employment.

▪ A $5 million transfer to the county’s emergency reserves, the first increase in the rainy-day fund of Gimenez’s tenure. He took office with a $52 million emergency reserve and it dropped to $43 million under his tenure. The 2016 budget would bring it back to $48 million. Budget director Jennifer Moon said the plan is to increases reserves to $100 million by 2020.

Miami-Dade’s five-year forecast shows countywide tax revenues falling short of expenses at the start of 2018, with deficits between $17 million and $26 million through 2020. But the county’s unincorporated taxing district, home to about 45 percent of residents, shows surpluses for the next five years that would more than compensate for the countywide deficits. The fire and library taxing districts show surpluses for the entire five years.

▪  Funding for charity grants, hit with a 10 percent cut this year, would return to 2014 levels. But that would only last for eight months, with a new competitive process launching in May 2016 for the dollars.

▪  A required 3.5 percent increase in general-fund dollars to subsidize the county’s transit operations. Gimenez skipped that $5.8 million bump this year to save money in the 2015 budget commissioners approved. The 2016 budget does not make up for the lost dollars (which would require a double payment).

The budget describes a strained transit system, with bus ridership down in part because of erratic service, and a Metrorail line plagued by breakdowns due to aging infrastructure. While the goal in 2015 was for the average Metromover car to travel 6,000 miles between a mechanical failure, the actual buffer will be closer 3,500 miles for the year. While transit’s operational budget dips slightly in 2016, its capital budget increases by 30 percent to allow for equipment replacement and station improvements.

Gimenez closed his remarks by hinting of more spending increases or a cut in tax rates by the time county commissioners vote on the budget in September. “We expect things to get better,” he said. “We hope that, by our first budget hearing in September, our budget message will actually be improved.”

Related stories from Miami Herald