Miami-Dade County

Climate change takes center stage in Miami-Dade budget vote

By Michael Vasquez

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez joins U.S. and Chinese leaders in signing the “Climate Leaders Declaration” on Tuesday.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez joins U.S. and Chinese leaders in signing the “Climate Leaders Declaration” on Tuesday. Courtesy of Miami-Dade mayor’s office

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez spent the first half of his week talking about climate change at a White House summit in Los Angeles. Gimenez posed for pictures, mingled with Vice President Joe Biden, and delivered a keynote speech where he boasted that county government “continues to be committed to making the necessary investments” on environmental issues. 

At home, some environmentalists have their doubts about the mayor’s commitment. Although environmentalists and Gimenez agree that Miami is “ground zero” for sea-level rise, this year’s budget debate has been dominated by environmental groups complaining that Miami-Dade County is all talk, and no action. 

As commissioners vote on the final budget Thursday, the message from climate change activists is clear: Show me the money. 

“You can’t not make this a priority anymore. You don’t have the luxury of that,” said Maggie Fernandez, president of the consulting firm Sustainable Miami and a former employee of the county’s Office of Sustainability. 

The budget vote is set for 5:01 p.m. Thursday in the commission chambers of the Stephen P. Clark Center, 111 NW 1 St.

The county’s sustainability office has fewer employees than a similar department in the city of Fort Lauderdale, which has less than one-tenth of Miami-Dade’s population. Fernandez complains that Miami-Dade’s department has been downsized and robbed of its effectiveness under Gimenez’s leadership.

Gimenez could not be reached for comment — his office said he was too busy at the Los Angeles climate summit — but Deputy Mayor Jack Osterholt said layoffs during the recession hit the sustainability office along with the rest of the county offices. 

“We know that we need to put some more assistance into sustainability, and that is the mayor’s directive to us now, so we’re going to be looking for good people,” he said.

After protests from environmentalists dominated Miami-Dade’s first budget hearing earlier this month, Gimenez released an updated budget memo that proposed spending $75,000 to add a new “resiliency officer” to the sustainability office and “expand the role” of the sustainability office by having it report directly to Osterholt. 

Osterholt said the county’s sustainability office currently has four and a half employees. Fort Lauderdale’s sustainability division has 23. Broward County’s division for environment planning and community resilience has roughly 45 employees, according to its director. 

Osterholt and other county leaders say Miami-Dade has made important strides in combating climate change, but they said the county has sometimes bungled the task of communicating that progress to the public. 

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava said the county has reduced energy use at the airport and other county buildings, converted its bus fleet to energy-efficient vehicles and is factoring in sea-level rise as it overhauls its water and sewer system. 

“Mayor Gimenez has stepped up to the plate,” Levine Cava said. “I think he’s getting the message and incorporating a greater sense of urgency.” 

Environmentalists are quick to note that the sewer upgrades only happened after the county was sued over its antiquated sewer system.

A coalition of dozens of local advocacy groups — including Tropical Audubon Society, Urban Environment League and the League of Women Voters — are demanding more. The groups recently signed a letter to the county commission asking that county speed up its response to sea-level rise. More than a year ago, the county’s own Sea Level Rise Task Force recommended the hiring of an engineering firm to help develop a “robust capital plan” to deal with issues like roads, bridges and general flood protection. 

So far, no firm has been hired. 

“We are strongly suggesting you set aside a relatively small amount of funds in your $6.7 billion budget,” the coalition’s letter says, asking for $500,000 to be allocated. “By putting money on the table, you will demonstrate to the world that we, the people of Miami-Dade County, take this issue seriously.”

Michael Vasquez: 305-376-3631, @mrmikevasquez