Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade must reapprove budget, tax rate after state finds advertising error

FarmShare supporters packed County Hall during what was supposed to be the final Miami-Dade budget hearing on Sept. 18.
FarmShare supporters packed County Hall during what was supposed to be the final Miami-Dade budget hearing on Sept. 18. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Miami-Dade County’s government thought it had finished with its 2015 budget in September after two months of rewriting, six town-hall style meetings and two public hearings that culminated with votes from county commissioners.

Not so fast.

A state agency is forcing the county to adopt its property-tax rate and budget again, nearly two months after the Oct.1 start of the fiscal year.

The reason: Miami-Dade messed up a single number in a newspaper advertisement in mid-September detailing its proposed taxes. As a result, the county is making plans to hold a new budget vote — public hearing and all — in the next few weeks, perhaps on Dec.4.

The numbers that commissioners relied on to vote were correct, according to the county. So were the notices mailed to taxpayers about their 2015 bills, so they won’t be sent again.

But the Florida Department of Revenue, which polices local government tax notices, found that Miami-Dade incorrectly advertised the total amount of property-tax revenue it expects to collect in 2015. That inaccuracy misled the public, according to the state, so the county must rectify its actions within 15 days. Otherwise, Florida could withhold tax revenues from Miami-Dade.

“Your taxing authority must correct these errors immediately,” the revenue department wrote Monday in a letter to the county.

In addition to holding a new budget hearing and final vote, Miami-Dade will have to reissue its “Notice of Proposed Tax Increase” advertisement in the Miami Herald, which published the original notice on page 6B on Sunday, Sept.14. The ad wasn’t just run-of-the-mill publicity for the county: Under state law, all local governments are required to formally notice budget hearings in a local newspaper and to lay out taxes for the next year.

“While there was no malicious intent on the part of our Budget Department professionals, this is unacceptable,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote Tuesday in a memo to commissioners.

He said he disciplined three high-ranking budget employees — including Director Jennifer Moon — by suspending them without pay. Moon will also have to pay the cost of the new advertisement — about $12,000 — from her own pocket.

Moon was suspended for one day, Deputy Director Hugo Salazar for three days and Operating Budget Coordinator Barbara Galvez for five days. “Each is ultimately responsible for the supervision of the departmental personnel tasked with preparing the notice,” Gimenez wrote.

Under “this year’s proposed tax levy,” the September ad listed $1,371,585,000. The correct estimate was 5percent higher.

The mistake may have happened because local governments are required to budget based on the assumption that they will collect only 95 percent of property taxes, assuming 5 percent will be lost to tax-assessment appeals and delinquency. Miami-Dade often collects less than that amount.

But Florida’s Truth in Millage (TRIM) law also requires that the newspaper advertisement before the final budget vote list 100 percent of those potential property-tax collections. It’s perhaps the only place where budget writers must use that figure. Millage refers to the legal term for tax rate.

In 1998, Miami-Dade made a similar advertising error. But the revenue department at the time didn’t require a new budget hearing and vote, concluding that the mistake didn’t “materially impact on the disclosure requirements of the Truth in Millage Laws.” That argument apparently went nowhere this year, even though the incorrect figure wasn’t printed anywhere other than the newspaper ad.

Miami-Dade is not the only municipality that ran afoul of TRIM regulations this year. Fifteen other jurisdictions committed similar infractions, according to the state. One of them, the city of Coconut Creek in Broward County, reapproved its tax rate and budget last week without discussion.

It’s possible that the Miami-Dade County Commission could do much of the same, treating the revote as a technicality to be swiftly dispatched.

But rarely do things at County Hall go so smoothly.

It’s possible that commissioners could use the redo to reconsider previous questions that had appeared settled on Sept.18, when they signed off on a $6.2 billion budget that hiked the county’s overall tax rate by less than 1percent over 2014.

Most disputes had been resolved before then. Funds were set aside for small businesses and for charities that help the elderly and the poor. A 25-cent increase to public transit fares was averted. Most county jobs on the chopping block were saved.

Yet not all commissioners were satisfied. Some called for cuts to employee salaries. Others clamored for additional dollars for local museums. Several questioned $1million in funding to outfit 500 police officers with body cameras. Five of 13 commissioners voted against the portion of the budget that raised water-and-sewer fees. Four opposed a larger library tax.

By now, the composition of the board itself has changed. Daniella Levine Cava, who defeated Lynda Bell in August, was sworn in as commissioner Tuesday. Levine Cava had not voted on the 2015 budget — but now, she will be given that unexpected chance.

That could give four labor unions with outstanding county contracts an opening to bring their members to County Hall to seek sympathy from commissioners, in an attempt to pressure Mayor Gimenez’s administration. Levine Cava was elected with heavy union support.

Unions representing firefighters, police officers, water-and-sewer employees and transit workers have yet to ink new, three-year agreements with the county, the last remaining collective-bargaining units — the county has 10 — still negotiating.

Unlike other Miami-Dade employees, members of those unions (except firefighters) have been unable to enroll for health-insurance coverage for 2015. Enrollment dates keep getting pushed back at the unions’ request to try to avoid increases to premiums for spouses and children that would kick in Jan. 1 without new labor contracts.