News: Gimenez Talks to the Miami Beach Tax Payers Association

By Anne Newport Royall

The usually punctual meetings of the Miami Beach Taxpayers Association began almost 40 minutes late, as all awaited the arrival of the guest speaker.

At 8:45 sharp Gimenez strode into the crystal-encrusted two-level room, where the Taxpayers were enjoying the hospitality of the Shelborne Hotel’s fruit and muffin-laden continental breakfast with coffee and juice. Almost 75 people were sitting and listening to

David Kelsey report on his committee’s working plan  on what to do with and about the Miami Beach Convention Center. After stopping to shake some important hands, including former Miami Beach Mayor Neisen O. Kasdin, Gimenez confidently walked downstairs to the head of the room and, with barely an introduction, began apologizing for holding things up.

“I have no drivers, no entourage, I drive myself,” he explained without offending campaign finance director Brian Goldman and staffer Alex Ferro who had been waiting for the mayor since 8:15 a.m. the usual start time for the group.

“I’ve been doing that for a long time,” chimed in Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower from the mezzanine.

“I am emulating you,” responded Gimenez
Gimenez launched into his budget speech that has perfected on his countywide tour. He has been tirelessly criss-crossing the county, explaining his budget in true Town Hall-style meetings. However, coming off Labor Day weekend, where he had taken the opportunity to introduce his radically-altered Table of Organization, which he spoke about as well.

“I promised to reduce the size of government,” he said, and we will become “mission driven.” Gimenez explained that last Friday he proposed  a reduction from 42 departments down to 25, and offered the savings from fewer directors and fewer assistant directors would bring $5 million in “right off the bat”.

His plan places all economic development efforts in one department, all regulatory functions in another, making, what he hopes is an easier time navigating County Hall.

Gimenez, a former fireman,  picked the perfect tale to tell a room chock-full of entrepreneurs of the trouble with big government. He told the story of a pharmacy opening in his former commission district during the recent mayoral campaign, where he was introduced to the owner who was opening a true “Mom and Pop” neighborhood operation.

The proprietor relayed to the mayor that they had a long, complicated process to get open. It took 14 months once the building was finished, to actually open the doors. His partner and he laughed about not cutting their hair until it was finally done…

“It was my first ribbon cutting and hair-cutting at the same event” he joked, then turned deadly serious. “It is unconscionable that a local government stands in the way of an entrepreneur providing 30 jobs to this community.” He promised to streamline the process so that the County “gets out of the way of business development.”

He outlined his first 69 days in office, and divided his two months and eight days into quarters. His first task was the budget. While there was some relief from the State of Florida with changes in the retirement system, and with his departmental consolidation, there will be a difference. But union concessions constitute a good chunk of the budget-gap fix.

“I was a 28-year union member,” he reminded those in the room. “But the times are different.”

He noted he had voted against the Alvarez tax-increase and all the union contracts that are about to expire, and is intent on keeping his campaign promise to roll them back. He has already done so with the budget, and now must do so with the 10 unions representing the majority of the workers at County Hall.

“I predict an impasse,” he sighed.

While wrestling with the budget, and the reorganization proposal done, Gimenez spoke of restoring trust to Miami Dade County government “with deeds, not words.” Speaking of the need for government to “stop trying to be everything to everyone” and setting “real expectations of what government can and should do”.

Before taking questions, the mayor wrapped up with a process for job creation with the quip that if you ask international business people where the best place to do business in South American is, the answer is “Miami.”

But it was when he finally turned his focus to Miami Beach, and spoke of wanting to help build a world-class convention center that the audience finally applauded some of his words.

“Tourism is a major industry, we can’t forget that. But we must diversify our economy beyond construction and tourism”, he added,“ and I can get that done in another two months!”

Councilwoman, Phyllis S. Smith, from the City of North Miami Beach, asked the first question. Smith wanted to know how the County Mayor was closing a budget gap that relies so much on union concessions.

Gimenez admitted to little time and even less wiggle-room with the unions and had instructed his H. R. Department to prepare layoff notices for the second week in October to go into effect on November 1, to shed “$5 million per pay period” until the unions agree to the terms. He has offered to listen to the union suggestions for saving money, as many union contracts have work-rules with the flexibility to control and reduce costs.

Russell Galbut, was up next. His first questions were on transportation issues facing those wanting to come to or leave the Beach. He spoke of the issues with the managed lanes on 1-95, which offer the choice of paying a fluctuating toll for access to a dedicated lane off the Interstate. There is no access to this highway to or from 41st Street, leaving the heart of Miami Beach an economic wasteland and the front door  to the Beach the Macarthur Causeway. “With the tunnel”, and all the rules talked about by Homeland Security that may require screening of cargo before entering the tunnel, Galbut said that residents are “frightened that they will be choked off from the mainland.”

Gimenez was clearly not about to throw himself into the tunnel fray, (Dubbed Harriet by a local Girl Scout Troop, the Tunnel Boring Machine is about to start working its way from the A-1-A Causeway under the water to Dodge Island),  Gimenez did promise, to go to a meeting with the City of Miami Beach and FDOT to complain about the change in plans for removing the muck Harriet leaves behind.

“They (FDOT) promised to remove it in barges. Now, it’s too much money, so they have to use trucks, which adds 300 trucks a day to the traffic, congestion and construction mix where the islands touch Miami” stated Mayor Bower.

Galbut then segued to ask about traffic convergence andspecifically, where the Macarthur Causeway meets Miami right at the former Miami Herald building, now owned by Malaysian developer Gentling. Gentling is planning on bringing a full Las Vegas-style casino to the Miami and specicfically that area.

“Miami’s the crown jewel for this market,” said Nick Larossi, lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands Corporation who has also held meetings with Gimenez to make casinos a reality in South Florida. And while the Gentling plan has always featured a convention center with hotel rooms and meeting space along with the casinos, the Sands people have a different approach stated Gimenez.

“Gentling plans to put their gambling in the basement, under the premise that those who want to gamble will always find the tables. But whatever happens needs to complement the Beach,” Gimenez said, noting a direct mass-transit link between Miami and Miami Beach should be integral to the plan.

While Beneta Argos argued that hotels and condos should be built “over there”, referring to the Herald property, and gambling should be here in the convention center, Tax-relief attorney Rick Kendle also reinforced the need for a mass-transit casino-Miami Beach connection. Public transportation, or the lack thereof, occupied several more questions from the floor before Gimenez offered up the relative success of the People Mover, the free downtown Miami automated shuttle, and a promised Master Transportation Plan for the County.

“It all comes down to funding. We can have all the dreams in the world but nothing without the money,” he ended.

Once Gimenez had left, the floor was open to the rest of the attendees.  Commissioner Jonah Wolfson,  Commissioner Michael Gongora, Commissioner Jorge Expositio and former Commissioner Judge Martin Shapiro listened to Miami Beach Fire Union President

Adonis Garcia voiced his frustration with the Taxpayer group: “I am a taxpayer! I want to be involved,” he stated, adding his city employee-status disqualified him from participation in committees.

“We’ll talk about it later,” promised Taxpayer President Jared Galbut.

And with that, those assembled, including Robert Wolfarth, Sr., Commission Candidate Elsa Urquiza and her son Victor, Mayoral Candidates Laura Leavy and Dave Crystal, Cartoonist Mike Burke, City Real Estate Broker Lyle Stern, Hotel Magnate Keith Menin, businessman and former Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Aaron Perry, and “the mayor” of Collins Park Ray Breslin, went on with their day.

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