In an election year, Miami-Dade’s budget is a political chess match

The upcoming budget for Miami-Dade County has become a political chess match between Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, his chief rival in the upcoming mayoral election.

The key pieces sure to be manipulated: controversial employee healthcare contributions imposed on unionized employees, and the county’s property-tax rate.

Gimenez says his reorganization of county government, which slashed the number of departments to 25 from 42, will result in $40 million in savings for the next fiscal year. That, coupled with a projected rise in the county’s property values, means there could be wiggle room for the mayor, chairman and commissioners to make some politically popular moves — right before most of their names go on the ballot this fall.

Martinez told Gimenez in a memo two weeks ago that, if the county finds itself with more money, he would like to reduce the property-tax rate, restore services or lower the healthcare contribution. The chairman reminded the mayor that the commission ultimately controls the county’s approximately $6 billion purse strings.

Gimenez countered last week with a memo of his own, saying his budget will propose shrinking the healthcare contribution and possibly lowering the property-tax rate.

Even though the ideas coming from the two men favored to get to a November runoff after August’s mayoral election are virtually identical, getting credit this election year is tricky.

That’s because, though the mayor proposes the county budget in July, Martinez has enormous sway over the commission and can make changes to it up until the end of September. And sandwiched in between is the primary election, with the expected runoff between the two in November after the budget is due.

The county already lowered the property-tax rate last year, following the recall of Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was targeted in part for hiking the rate the year before. Both Gimenez and Martinez can — and do — take credit for residents’ slightly smaller property-tax bills.

Now they’re vying for support from labor unions, which typically offer valuable hands-on volunteers, organization and campaign contributions to their preferred mayoral candidate.

Gimenez won a hard-fought campaign last year even though most unions backed former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, his opponent. This time around, Gimenez may be even more unpopular with labor, as the mayor who asked the county’s 13 commissioners to require employees to contribute an additional 4 percent of their base pay toward healthcare, bringing their total contribution to 9 percent.

Martinez was one of six commissioners who voted against imposing the concession, which applied only for a year.

Gimenez’s administration is grappling with how to tackle expensive healthcare costs for next year while placing less of a burden on the county’s nearly 26,000 employees. Administrators have begun a new round of intense talks with eight of its 10 employee bargaining units to try to cement a new, three-year healthcare plan. All 10 unions agreed to substantial cutbacks this year to close a big budget gap.

Most of the scenarios the administration has proposed involve lowering or eliminating the added 4-percent employee contribution. But they also call for higher co-pays and more expensive healthcare coverage for dependents such as spouses and children.

Greg Blackman, president of the Government Supervisors Association of Florida OPEIU Local 100, called the scenarios “the nightmare list.”

“I didn’t spend much time looking at them, because I thought they were so ludicrous,” said Blackman, whose union represents nearly 4,600 professional employees and supervisors. “You’re paying more than you would have paid if you were paying out of pocket. It’s crazy, what they’re putting on the table.”

Under the six proposed scenarios, the lower the contribution from an employee’s base pay, the higher the co-pays and deductibles. For example, employees now in the county’s most popular plan, an HMO without a deductible, would face deductibles of $500 or $1,000. The co-pay to see an in-network specialist, depending on the scenario, would rise up to $25 from $10.

One scenario suggests doing away with the 4-percent contribution, but increasing premiums by 20 percent.

Gimenez said commissioners have asked to reduce or get rid of the 4-percent contribution, which was approved by the board only after Commissioner Barbara Jordan negotiated the number down from Gimenez’s original 5-percent proposal and swung the vote in the mayor’s favor.

“If our calculations are correct, we’re going to be able to get that 4 percent down,” Gimenez said in an interview. “The commission asked for that, and I agreed we’d eliminate as much of that as possible.”

But that’s sugar-coating it, Martinez said, because employees will still be paying more — it just won’t be out of their base pay.

“It’s a way to try and garner union support,” he said in an interview. “Also, the tax roll should increase, so I don’t understand why you have to’’ increase co-pays or deductibles.

Property Appraiser Pedro Garcia won’t release the tax rolls until June, which makes it tough for the county to get a handle on whether its budget will be bolstered by higher property values.

Martinez’s memo to Gimenez, however, said he expects an uptick for the first time in years. Gimenez, too, said he is hopeful for an increase of 1 or 2 percent.

The budget will likely take center stage in the mayoral campaign. Gimenez, an ex-commissioner and former firefighter, will face Martinez, a commission veteran and former police officer, in a crowded field.

Commissioners must approve a new spending plan in September for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. They must set a maximum property-tax rate in July.

Gimenez, who has been criticized by the unions for moving too slowly on his much-ballyhooed reorganization, has touted savings from merging departments, which this year resulted in the elimination of more than 1,100 positions, most of them vacant.

He announced the elimination of another 527 vacant jobs, cut the pay of 10 demoted department heads who made six-figure salaries by 5 to 6 percent, and eliminated benefit packages for 280 executives.

But one of the most expensive pieces of the budget is still healthcare costs. This year, commissioners imposed the additional, 4-percent contribution and agreed to a one-time, $10 million raid of a health insurance trust fund to finish closing a $239 million budget gap. Otherwise, the administration said it would lay off hundreds of workers, including 118 police officers and 17 corrections workers.

The unions have challenged the move, which commissioners took up only after the mayor vetoed their original decision not to impose the concession. The unions argue Gimenez did not have the authority to veto the commission’s initial vote.

Any new agreement with the unions wouldn’t take effect until January, when the current one-year healthcare concession expires. Mary Lou Rizzo, the county’s director of human resources, said deals need to be in place by late August or early September in order to cement the budget for the coming fiscal year.

“We need to find a way to produce a balanced budget,” she said. “Do we reduce base pay? Or do unions make a larger contribution towards healthcare?”

For Gimenez and Martinez, the question will be answered on the campaign trail and from the dais.

“In the case of our workforce, let us not ignore that what began as an austerity measure has morphed into severe hardship for those who serve this community day in and day out,” Martinez wrote in his memo to Gimenez. “I trust you and my colleagues will join me in allocating these funds in a transparent and efficient manner.”

Responded Gimenez: “As a former member of the Board of County Commissioners for seven years, I fully understand that the final allocation of these revenues is the decision of the Board of County Commissioners.”