Miami-Dade County

Climate change gets last-minute nod in new Miami-Dade budget

Elizabeth Marie Taveras wore a life jacket to make a point about climate change at the Miami-Dade budget hearing Thursday.
Elizabeth Marie Taveras wore a life jacket to make a point about climate change at the Miami-Dade budget hearing Thursday.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez won strong support Thursday night for a 2016 budget with flat tax rates and increased spending, as well as some last-minute expenditures added under pressure by environmental groups objecting to sea-level rise being snubbed in the original plan.

“I’m heartened to see the budget recast,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava. “We need to get moving quicker, and we need to do more.”

The $6.8 billion budget expands hours at some county libraries, deploys a second fire boat in Biscayne Bay, boosts hiring at jails, extends countywide raises to non-union workers and top officials, and reverses past cuts on cutting the grass at Miami-Dade parks. An improved housing market sent property-tax revenues well above forecasts, generating $120 million more than this year even with an overall property levy remaining at $976 per $100,000 in taxable value.

Commissioners adopted Gimenez’s main budget legislation by a vote of 11-2, with Xavier Suarez and Juan C. Zapata on the No side. “You said you were a fiscal conservative,” Zapata said to Gimenez. “I consider myself a fiscal conservative. I don’t think this is a fiscally conservative budget.”

The 2016 budget is the last to take effect before next year’s mayoral race. Suarez is considering a challenge against Gimenez, and Zapata also has publicly flirted with a run. When first elected in 2011, Gimenez promptly reversed an unpopular 13-percent tax-rate increase imposed the year before and presided over a string of service cuts and layoffs to absorb the lost revenue. He presented his 2016 budget as a turning point for Miami-Dade, with spending expanding across a leaner bureaucracy.

“All of this is possible because of the sacrifices we made over the last four years,” said Gimenez, a former county commissioner. “I believe better days are ahead because we remain disciplined and committed to a fiscally sustainable future.”

Gimenez received the most heat in his budget from environmental groups, who used a hearing earlier this month to condemn the administration for only mentioning sea-level rise once in the three-volume spending plan — and that on a list of unfunded parks projects.

The scolding continued on Thursday — even though Gimenez had already met one demand from the environmental groups to create a new county “resiliency officer” to spearhead climate-change action.

Gimenez announced the new $75,000 position by memo earlier this week, and started Thursday’s afternoon meeting by announcing a $300,000 boost in climate-change funding in his proposed budget. That money, approved by commissioners in the budget vote, will fund engineering work to help Miami-Dade prepare its roads, bridges, and other infrastructure for sea-level rise.

The new $300,000 line-item was a partial victory for environmental groups, who had pushed the county to spend $500,000 on engineers. While some environmentalists thanked Gimenez for the extra spending, others complained it wasn’t nearly enough. Some of the harshest criticism came from high school students who trekked down to County Hall.

“When is this administration going to take this threat seriously?” asked Miranda Pertierra, a 17-year-old senior from Coral Reef Senior High School.

“When I started to write this, I began to tear up,” Miami resident Jacob Coker-Dukowitz said during the more than three hours of public comments. Even with optimistic sea-level projections, “we’ll lose a significant chunk of the Everglades. My children will never know it for what I know it as.”

Fresh off participating in a global climate-change summit in Los Angeles, Gimenez said he wants the University of Miami and other local colleges to make sea-level rise a top research priority as Miami-Dade and other coastal communities brace for the challenge.

“We don’t have a solution,” Gimenez said. “So even if I have a billion dollars right now, we wouldn’t know what to spend it on. Because there is no solution right now.”

“We will confront it, we will beat it,” he continued. “I expect that my children and my grandchildren will be living right here in Miami-Dade County,” Gimenez said.

Though revenues are up, Gimenez said all but $35 million were already baked into the 2016 budget forecast. That forecast shows spending shortfalls in the budget funded by the countywide property tax starting in 2018, but surpluses in the budget funded by property taxes paid in the unincorporated parts of Miami-Dade that rely on the county for municipal services.

All property owners pay the countywide property tax ($467 for $100,000 of value), and the countywide debt tax ($45), while only certain properties pay the property tax for municipal services in unincorporated areas ($192), fire services ($242) and library ($28).

The budget includes a 10 percent increase in spending for the Parks department; an additional 36 firefighter positions for a pair of fire boats, including a new one in southern Biscayne Bay; about $10 million to give non-union staffers the same pay increases union workers received this year, and an extra $3 million for more lawn-mowing crews at the county’s parks and roadsides.

Ten libraries move to six-day schedules from five under the budget, and the system’s acquisitions budget increases 33 percent with an additional $1 million to buy books and digital materials. The Perez Art Museum Miami receives an extra $1 million in aid from the county. Gimenez expects to fill 100 vacancies at the police department and spend another $1 million on the county police department’s first body cameras.

The budget calls for Miami-Dade to boost its rainy-day fund for the first time under Gimenez’s tenure — a $5 million installment in a long-range plan to bring the current $43 million to $100 million by 2020.

“I feel this budget is really starting to right the ship,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan. “It’s finally a budget I can feel good about. We’re not laying anybody off.”