Hialeah asks its voters: Do you want to raise taxes to pay for more police?

Members of the Hialeah Police Department’s SWAT team talk to students at Amelia Earhart Elementary School in Hialeah about gun safety and to let kids know that “guns are not cool.”
Members of the Hialeah Police Department’s SWAT team talk to students at Amelia Earhart Elementary School in Hialeah about gun safety and to let kids know that “guns are not cool.” Miami Herald File

The cost of law enforcement has increased, due in part to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Hialeah’s mayor and city commissioners say, so they are asking property owners if they’re willing to raise their own taxes to pay for it.

The question will go to Hialeah voters on Aug. 28: a nonbinding ballot measure asking if they would support an increase of 75 cents in the property tax rate to pay for more police officers, equipment, technology, training and capital expenses “for the purpose [of] rendering aid to schools ... and enhance response to public mass shootings in the city.”

The current tax rate in Hialeah is $6.30 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The proposal would raise the rate to $7.05, a 12 percent increase. The additional tax would cost an average homeowner $12 a month, according to Mayor Carlos Hernandez, or $144 a year, and raise $6.7 million.

Opponents say the money should come from the city’s budget reserves or from the state after legislators mandated more school security measures, including armed officers at every school.

The president of the Hialeah firefighters union, Eric Johnson, said the proposal is absurd because the most recent municipal audit showed the city has a surplus of nearly $40 million.

“How can you ask for a tax increase when the city already has money?” Johnson asked.

By itself, the ballot measure would not raise taxes. Instead, “the purpose and intent of this ordinance is to obtain an expression of elector sentiment,” according to the commission.

Money for the campaign in support of the measure is coming from the Public Safety Now PAC, which was founded in Tampa by Arnie Alonso, a former Hernandez chief of staff. It has received $20,000 from Hialeah for Progress, a group also based in Tampa that has financed robocalls promoting the tax proposal.

Hernandez did not reply to el Nuevo Herald’s repeated requests for comment, but he talked about the measure in one of the robocalls.

“Hello. This is your mayor, Carlos Hernandez. We will ask on your ballot if you approve an increase in property taxes of approximately $12 per month, to spend the funds exclusively on improving your safety,” the mayor said on the recording.

He explained in the robocall that the money would be used for quick-response units, armed officers at every school, better technology, more personnel and new equipment. He did not specify the equipment or the technology.

Modesto Perez, president of the Miami-Dade Association of Merchants and Neighbors, said he was concerned by the proposed tax increase because it would be especially tough on the elderly. And if taxes go up, rents will follow, he warned.

County Commissioner Esteban Bovo congratulated Hialeah for giving voters the power to decide on a tax hike and said reinforcing school safety is a fundamental task. But he added that state officials, who have called for increased security, should “support this with the required financial resources.”

“I think the people will vote in favor of offering security for their children,” said Bovo.

Some residents complain that the city is not as safe as it used to be. The 2008 municipal budget included funds to pay for 358 police officers. But in 2017 that number fell to 284. The budget for this fiscal year includes $14.6 million to pay for 243 police officers, according to public records.

“The vacancies in the police department of our city are not filled, and we have fewer police and firemen than 10 years ago,” said Johnson.

Hialeah Police Department Chief Sergio Velazquez has said that the process of hiring new officers has been delayed because too many applicants did not meet the department’s requirements.

Follow Enrique Flor on Twitter @kikeflor and Luis Hernández @LAHOM64