Five years ago, when Tomás Regalado crafted his first budget as Miami’s mayor, he had to grapple with a financial crisis, close a $100 million budget gap, and raise taxes in order to keep the city government afloat.
Now, midway through his final term in office, he’s practically doing the backstroke in property-tax dollars and finding millions under the couch cushions.
Regalado unveiled his 2016 budget Tuesday, laying out a $958 million spending plan that taps into what may be the peak of a building boom to fund new labor contracts, replace hundreds of city vehicles and fund $45 million in pet projects, all while keeping the operating property-tax rate flat. Meanwhile, with property values up 13 percent in Miami, spending is also up $55 million — 10 percent — from last year, when finances were so rosy every elected official got an extra $1.5 million to spend on capital projects of their choice.
“The times where the city was close to bankrupt are over,” Regalado said Tuesday, touting the city’s recently improved bond ratings. “The big news in this budget is the fact that we’re investing the money in our residents and services and employees.”
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Indeed, times are so good that Regalado wants to spend $336,000 on synthetic vines to hang along the wall that separates Coconut Grove homes from the northbound lanes of Federal Highway. An equal amount is set aside to fill empty planters on Calle Ocho. Plus, there’s a half-million to replace playgrounds, another $4 million to buy park land and $7.7 million for street resurfacing and reconstruction.
He’s also making good on $16 million in increased wages and employee expenses related largely to new union contracts, hiring 22 civilian employees to direct traffic downtown, and setting aside $1.5 million at the request of Commissioner Francis Suarez to create a transportation fund. He’s replacing nearly 500 vehicles in the city’s fleet, including 300 used by police.
It’s all part of Regalado’s plan to focus on neighborhood projects and city employees — the things that bore the brunt of the city’s financial crisis.
“The employees had to take cuts when the city was in dire need of money. And they stood by the city, so today we’re here presenting this budget that has in terms of new contracts and future contracts money for our employees and especially for infrastructure and also expanded services,” said Regalado.
In order to keep spending up, Regalado has proposed leaving the city’s operating tax rate flat, which will generate an extra $24 million in property tax revenue. The city’s debt millage, however, is dropping, allowing the mayor to tout a fifth straight year of lowered taxes for homeowners and corporations with large real estate holdings.
With a tax rate of $8.3351 per every $1,000 in taxable value for a given property, the city’s figures suggest the owner of the average home with a homestead exemption would save $6.14 if the taxable value remained flat. With property values increasing across the city, however, that’s an unlikely scenario.
Regalado’s budget is a fluid document. Miami commissioners will have nearly three months to digest his plan and make changes. Commissioners will set a tax-rate cap later this month and vote twice on the budget in September. They must have a balanced spending plan by the beginning of October.
Last year, they made significant alterations, choosing to plunge millions into increasing staffing in the police department, among other changes.
That may happen again. Commissioner Marc Sarnoff remains determined to beef up Miami’s police force and frustrated that efforts to bolster the police force by 115 cops have largely been unsuccessful. And Lt. Javier Ortiz, president of the city’s police union, came out strong against the budget Tuesday, arguing that efforts to hire civilians to perform police duties were tantamount to “union busting.”
Regalado “has been ‘touting’ how they have allocated funding for more cops every year and to no avail can they hire,” he wrote in a message to the union. “Yet, this year he isn’t allocating money for more cops. He has strategically tied up funding sources to district initiatives so Commissioners will have to decide what is more important to their constituents.”
Regalado has proposed hiring several more civilian employees to take over office work currently done by sworn officers in order to place a few more cops on the street, he said. And public safety would for the first time top $300 million under Regalado (though that is due in part to changes in accounting.) But Sarnoff wants to budget for more officers, and like Ortiz, believes Regalado gave his office a breakdown of new budget initiatives in order to show what would be cut to pay for more officers.
“I don’t think this budget plans for a future for Miami because it fails to hire more cops to get us to a national standard,” said Sarnoff, who received a list of new expenditures one week ago.
Commissioners Suarez and Wifredo “Willy” Gort also said Tuesday that public safety remains a priority. But Regalado said any renewed effort to fund another 100 police officer positions would need enough votes to override his veto pen.
“If the commission in September says we don’t want any parks, we don’t want anything, we want 100 cops, if it’s three votes I’ll veto it,” Regalado said. “If it’s four votes, I’m screwed.”