Op-Ed

County budget should reflect reality

TNS

Miami-Dade County has had a great year. We should all be proud of the county’s success and the community’s contributions to our stellar performance. This success is reflected by the significant increase — almost 9 percent — in property-tax revenue to the county’s coffers.

But even with this additional revenue, we are struggling to balance the budget and continue to leave many important issues unresolved. Are we placing ourselves on a path to repeating the mistakes of the past? Is this a budget born out of political expediency or one that sets us on a path for a better future?

The sad truth is that nothing is more important — yet less analyzed by the commission — than the budget. Since my election in 2012, I have advocated for the commission to take a more proactive approach in the development of the budget as opposed to one that merely reacts to it.

In Miami-Dade County, the budget approval process is transactional and characterized by commissioners making individual funding requests with little discussion on big-picture or structural budget issues. After all, the budget is the single most important policy the commission adopts. It should clearly identify our priorities and how the county’s resources should be allocated to meet those priorities. Establishing what matters most is the very function of what a budget process should reflect.

My concerns with the proposed budget cover a wide range of structural and substantive issues. It is not only structurally unsustainable, it also contains an unhealthy dose of financial engineering that helps make the numbers work.

Take a look at the five-year forecast: It projects deficits in the countywide general fund for years to come. A quick review will show positive linear revenue projections and unrealistic projections for expenditure growth. The supposed increase in emergency contingency reserve payments comes in later years, at the same time other significant obligations come due.

To cover these forecasted deficits, the county has historically tapped into the municipal-tax revenue collected from residents in the unincorporated municipal service area (UMSA), which projects a substantial annual surplus. The commission has an absolute duty to protect the integrity of UMSA revenue. The continued use of UMSA revenue to support countywide operations is a disservice to the residents of unincorporated Miami-Dade and an impediment to the growth of those communities.

The proposed budget also includes a significant increase in new positions and the justification for those positions. This will be the third year of water-rate increases that are meant to be directed toward capital costs and to addressing our significant infrastructure deficits. Yet we see a 6-percent increase in employees at the department, and many of those positions are for administrative functions. Why aren’t we demanding better operational performance from our self-supported departments so that a greater share of the revenue goes toward capital improvements?

Keep in mind that our largest budgetary expense is employee salaries and benefits, such as healthcare, which continue to skyrocket. These expenses will grow exponentially because of compounding, so why don’t we emphasize increasing the productivity and output of our current employees instead of adding new employees? That is something worth making an investment in.

This budget also lacks an emphasis on creating greater public value. Two easy examples are increasing the allocation to repay the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust that was taken away contrary to the voters’ intent and substantially increasing the dollars allocated to our emergency contingency reserves. The latter would even contribute to improving our bond ratings.

Above all, the proposed budget should include a millage reduction. In a year of enormous prosperity, why can’t we give some of it back? As modest as it may seem, a millage reduction demonstrates that County Hall is willing to work for taxpayers and not for its own benefit. At the very least, we should be prioritizing dollars in ways that will benefit residents for years to come.

The commission is in the midst of approving its annual budget, and by the looks of things, it should pass easily. As chair of the budget committee, I see things differently and will be voting No on the proposed budget unless these issues are addressed.

It is important to remember that our individual and collective legacies will not be made by what we do today but what we allow to be achieved tomorrow.

Juan C. Zapata is a Miami-Dade County Commissioner, representing District 11.

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