Property-tax rates dip and water fees spike in Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed 2017 budget for Miami-Dade, his last before facing reelection in August.
The $7.1 billion spending plan includes expanded hours for the county’s six largest library branches, about $40 million for syncing traffic lights, money for a new rescue squad for North Miami, and a 40 percent increase in staffing for Miami-Dade’s new animal shelter.
A 9.1 percent surge in property values is helping fund the new spending, though much of it will cover a 4 percent raise Gimenez pledged to union workers in 2014 if the county’s real estate market beat expectations in the following years.
“I have a lot of good news to share,” Gimenez said at a press conference outside his 29th floor offices in County Hall.
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Most property-tax rates paid by Miami-Dade residents remain flat in the 2017 budget, which takes effect Oct. 1 and must be approved by the 13-member County Commission. But the county’s debt tax, which funds voter-authorized borrowing, is slated to drop from $45 for every $100,000 of a property’s taxable value to $40.
Budget officials credited growing property values for allowing the switch from what was forecast to be a string of annual debt-tax increases. In Gimenez’s budget, the county’s maximum tax rate — charged to properties outside city limits but within Miami-Dade’s library and fire districts — amounts to $971 for every $100,000 of taxable value.
In all, the Gimenez budget proposes less than a 1 percent decrease in property-tax rates. County calculations required under the state’s “rollback-rate” law show rising property values would have required an 8 percent rate drop to prevent taxpayers countywide from paying more to the county.
The 2017 budget, with expanded spending and level tax rates, extends Gimenez’s depature from the austerity plans that marked most of his five years as mayor of Florida’s largest county. First elected in 2011, he campaigned on a property-tax cut that saw rates drop 12 percent in 2012 amid a wave of spending cuts and service reductions. The former city manager touted his ability to make Miami-Dade government more efficient in lean times, amid fights with union leaders and elected officials demanding more services for constituents.
Last year, Gimenez declared fiscal victory with a budget that increased spending while holding taxes flat, declaring Miami-Dade had “turned a corner” from past financial woes. With two months to go until he faces reelection, Gimenez extended the theme on Monday as a videographer joined the press conference to film a campaign ad.
“Since I was first elected mayor in 2011,” Gimenez said, “I have put Miami-Dade’s financial house in order.”
One of the biggest changes in the 2017 budget involves water rates charged across the county. In the 2016 budget, those rates were forecast to increase 5 percent the following year to finance a package of new sewer projects. But the budget Gimenez unveiled Monday shows the rates set to increase 9 percent. That should mean about $55 extra a year for the average customer, instead of an extra $31.
The budget shows a sharp increase in hiring at the county’s Water and Sewer department, which is funded solely through water bills paid by county residents and businesses. With an additional 200 positions boosting the agency’s staff by 8 percent, Water and Sewer says it needs the extra manpower to help manage improvements to the county’s sewer system under a federally-mandated upgrade.
Jennifer Moon, the county’s budget director, said the need for higher rates than expected in 2017 stems largely from a $580 million plan that commissioners approved in December to improve sewer pipes to commercial properties throughout the county. Miami-Dade has long been seen as under-charging residents for water while its infrastructure deteriorated, and county staff provided a chart Monday showing the new rates would only move the county from the bottom to second-from-the-bottom in terms of water bills in large metropolitan areas.
For county libraries, which are financed by a special property tax, funding grew 20 percent in the proposed budget. That’s in part thanks to the affluent village of Bay Harbor Islands joining the county’s library taxing district, which means more revenue, and in part thanks to $8 million in unspent funds from 2016. Along with a new Bay Harbor Islands branch opening in 2017, Miami-Dade’s six regional libraries will have expanded evening hours.
At Miami-Dade’s 4,000-person police department, the 2017 budget calls for an additional 54 payroll slots. The extra staffing goes to the agency’s support-services division, including 10 positions to manage footage captured by the county’s new body-camera program. The investigative and patrol divisions would see slight dips in budgeted positions. Moon said the change comes from sworn officers being transferred to the county’s crime command center.
The budget also includes about $3 million for a package of programs aimed at reducing youth violence, and about $700,000 to buy gunshot-detection technology to let police triangulate where shots are fired. In a meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board, Gimenez also emphasized new spending on both protective gear for police and expanded firepower being purchased in 2017.
“I can tell you right now our patrol officers are never going to be outgunned,” he said. Five hundred police officers are already outfitted with special vests designed to stop a rifle’s bullet, and another 500 are on the way in 2017. “We owe that to them,” Gimenez said of county officers.
The 2017 police budget expects to save about $19 million by allowing about 140 unfilled positions to remain empty, but Moon said an additional 40 unfilled slots will be funded for patrol officers.
Miami-Dade’s police union issued a statement Monday accusing the mayor of painting a rosier picture of police staffing than is justified.
“At a time where law enforcement is under attack, personnel levels need to be strengthened and should be at an all-time high,” union president John Rivera said. “Rather, the mayor is providing numbers to lull the public into a false sense of security.”
Gimenez’s main opponent in the Aug. 30 mayoral primary, school board member Raquel Regalado, struck a similar theme in her statement: “Public safety is the number one function of local government and Carlos Gimenez, despite all his campaign rhetoric, once again refuses to make our safety a priority.”