Budget comes to the rescue

Janet Ray speaks to the Miami-Dade County Commission during a meeting in July. The public can speak about the budget at Thursday’s meeting.
Janet Ray speaks to the Miami-Dade County Commission during a meeting in July. The public can speak about the budget at Thursday’s meeting. El Nuevo Herald

It wasn’t so bad after all.

By the time Miami-Dade commissioners hold the final public hearing on the budget Thursday night to approve the $6.2-billion behemoth, all the major dramas will be over, diffused by concessions and found money.

Dire predictions by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez appear averted. His “worst-case scenario” budget didn’t play out:

▪ Jobs of 100 police officers: Saved.

▪ Current Metrobus and Metrorail fare: Saved.

▪ Youthful offender Boot Camp: Saved, for a year, at least.

So was the mayor just crying wolf? Mr. Gimenez said he avoided budget cuts by using one-time revenue sources, surplus transit dollars and proceeds from the sale of rescue helicopters. But for the fare and the $3.5-million-budget boot camp, the financial rescue is only for one year. Libraries appear to be untouched because of an increase in a special property tax that funds them.

And for once, according to the mayor, the county’s financial future seems rosier, thanks to an improving economy and the promise of robust property taxes. Quite a different tune from his original gloomy outlook floated when the budget was first unveiled in July.

As usual, there is a caveat: If the economy fails to continue to improve and property taxes don’t exceed current projections of 5-percent yearly growth, there will be budget trouble again.

Miami-Dade will likely go back to panic mode, looking to target public libraries, again. Several commissioners have gently, and not so gently, expressed displeasure from the dais about the unending state of urgency, budget crisis and must-act-now modus operandi of county business.

“I’m exhausted over this eternal sense of emergency we have around here for everything,” Commissioner Juan C. Zapata said earlier this month. As are most Miami-Dade residents, no doubt.

Mr. Gimenez says the county is out of the woods for the next five years. But Herald writer Douglas Hanks’ recent story indicates that the mayor practices fuzzy math, as budget documents show a $25-million deficit in 2016, the first of three before a surplus returns in 2019.

Mr. Gimenez and his aides dismiss the deficit forecasts as problems that exist mostly on paper, saying they are caused by future payments to rainy-day reserves that Miami-Dade can cancel if revenues don’t exceed expectations. With high-rise construction again on a tear, Mr. Gimenez sees his budget’s tax projections as conservative enough that the county will likely have more money to spend by the time 2016 arrives — and when he’s up for reelection.

Mr. Gimenez is also counting on other revenue streams, including winning concessions from local unions in reduced healthcare costs.

Thursday, community-based organizations will fight for their slice of the county budget. They should be prepared to show that they are both effective with and accountable for public funds. The Pérez Art Museum Miami wants the county to continue its $2.5-million annual subsidy and increase it by $1.5 million to a total of $4 million a year. PAMM has been a game-changer that is enhancing Miami’s cultural status. Given major public and private investment in making it a reality, commissioners should not pull the rug out from under this new asset.

However long it takes, the commission will hear all comers at the meeting, then take vote on the county budget. All the bills will be paid — at least until next year comes.