West Kendall

Miami-Dade Commission hears budget requests in painless hearing, puts off decisions until Sept. 20

A subdued Miami-Dade budget hearing — especially compared to tumultuous ones over the past two years — concluded Thursday night with county commissioners saving most of their decisions for a final hearing in two weeks.

The board made it clear to Mayor Carlos Gimenez that it does not intend to support continuing a controversial healthcare concession that commissioners reluctantly imposed earlier this year. But commissioners did not delve into nitty-gritty budget details, preferring to leave that discussion to Sept. 20, after they have met with county administrators to hammer out individual concerns.

Still, compared to the pitched political battles of the past two years, Thursday’s hearing was more like a love-in.

“Last year, it was really contentious because of the different things we had to do,” Gimenez said, referring to a painful 2011-12 budget that called for layoffs and steep union concessions. “That led to a lot more people being upset about it.”

The hearing, which lasted less than three hours, was most noteworthy for what it lacked: There was no snaking line of community advocates pleading for funding, no arguments into the wee morning hours, and no public friction between Gimenez’s administration and commissioners.

About 35 people asked for more support for their nonprofits and for county programs. But the requests were cordial, with many “thank you’s,” and markedly fewer speakers than the more-than 125 who spoke last year and more than 250 people two years ago.

Members of the Greater Miami Service Corps, which provides job training for at-risk youth, gave moving remarks about how the organization had helped them. They urged commissioners to give county departments more funding to hire Service Corps members, many of whom are high-school dropouts, to perform jobs such as painting public housing projects.

“Once you get away from that school system, nobody seems to care about you anymore,” said Williminia Gibson, 23, a Service Corps member who said she recently graduated from Miami Dade College. “There’s a lot of 19-year-olds and 21-year-olds who feel like their lives are over. And we need to catch them.”

Gimenez’s budget cuts $54,000 in funding to the organization, for a vacant supervisor position, but the number of youth served by the program should not be affected, according to the county.

More than a dozen former workers of the shuttered David’s Café II in Miami Beach asked commissioners to bolster funding for the county department that investigates wage theft, saying that there is a backlog of pending complaints. Adolfo Henriques, head of the county’s cultural affairs council, suggested the commission find more funding for arts programs. A landscape contractor who worked for Miami-Dade until cutbacks a few years ago requested that the county hire more small businesses.

But those comments paled in comparison to recent years, when advocates and union members made organized — and often emotional — efforts to beg the county to spare their programs and jobs.

This year, Gimenez proposed a hold-the-line budget that keeps level the more-than $20 million in funding for community-based organizations. While his plan does not envision layoffs, there is a net reduction of 602 positions.

Among those, the administration said Thursday, are 15 full-time and two part-time jobs at a school-readiness program for children, and with programs that help refugee youths and families. The workers should be able to find other positions in the county, but about 860 children and 393 refugees will no longer receive services from the programs, which are funded by a state grant that has been cut.

Gimenez’s $5.9 billion budget, down from nearly $6.2 billion last year, was boosted by a small increase in countywide property values, and relies on savings from an administrative reorganization the mayor began implementing this year.

Though Gimenez would like to continue requiring that county employees pay an additional 4 percent of their base pay toward healthcare costs — bringing their total contribution to 9 percent — several commissioners nixed that idea, including the swing vote, Barbara Jordan. Gimenez has set aside $23 million in his proposed budget to fund the difference.

“If the vote remains the same, then the four percent will go back” to the employees, Chairman Joe Martinez said.

But the board did not officially make a decision on the matter Thursday. Gimenez said his administration is negotiating with several unions to redesign employees’ health-insurance plans to avoid looming hikes in dependent premiums. The mayor said he would like to present that proposal to commissioners as early as next week so they have more information before taking action on the 4-percent healthcare contribution.

“I would hope to bring it up almost as a package deal,” Gimenez said.

In July, the board agreed with Gimenez’s proposal to lower the property-tax rate by 2 percent, to $9.55 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value. In an unincorporated neighborhood like Kendall, the owner of a $250,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay about $38 less in county taxes than last year.

But if a property’s value rose more than the nearly 2 percent countywide average, a homeowner could see a slight uptick in county taxes, which represent only a portion of their total tax bill.

Under state law, the county will still have to post a notice of “tax increase” because it will receive more in total tax revenues than last year, given the rise in property values.

Gimenez has characterized his budget as a continuation of the one commissioners approved last year. It spares most services, and restores funding for programs at the Miami Science Museum, Miami Art Museum, HistoryMiami and the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens to levels they haven’t seen in six years.

The budget also proposes recruiting new firefighters and hiring the first two classes of police officers in three years. Gimenez’s financial plan also calls for the elimination of 60 vacant, non-sworn positions in the police department, which the mayor said will not affect street patrols.