By Joshua Malina
Miami Beach residents should be prepared to reach a little deeper into their pockets for the city’s cut of their income.
In an effort to fill a $29 million gap in next year’s operating budget, the Miami Beach City Commission narrowly approved a $0.56 property tax increase Monday night, with commissioners Deede Weithorn, Jonah Wolfson and Edward Tobin voting against the increase.
The budget shortfall, which came as a result of pending pension payouts and depressed property values, will be offset in large part by the property tax hike, which will capture $10.1 million, City Manager Jorge Gonzalez said. It will cost the average homeowner, with a home value of $288,000, $220 annually, according to the city manager.
Although the tax increase does present one way of balancing the city’s budget, some commissioners don’t think that it’s the best idea.
“It’s the wrong time to be saddling the taxpayers with the city’s burden,” said Wolfson. “There were other ways to balance this budget, and over the last two years I’ve made numerous votes, that if they had gone my way, would have been enough,” he said, and pointed to further reductions in executive salary as well as millions of dollars of promotional money spent on marketing the city.
“It’s the wrong time to be saddling the taxpayers with the city’s burden.” – Commissioner Jonah Wolfson.
The remaining shortfall will be filled by employee “give-backs” from city workers, surplus parking revenues, and increases in metered parking rates on South Beach. Currently, four out of the five unions that represent city workers have agreed to re-negotiate contracts, accepting 9-15 percent wage reductions in exchange for three years of immunity from lay-offs and further salary reductions.
“This is probably the first time, in anybody’s history that’s sitting up here, that we’ve actually secured concessions from the unions,” Gonzalez said.
The only loose end is a rogue $2 million, which may be captured if the city can reach an agreement with the Communication Workers Alliance (CWA), which represents 425 city workers, including 911 dispatchers, ocean lifeguards, and pool guards, among others. The CWA and the city have been trying to negotiate a new contract for over a year.
“I feel optimistic about reaching an agreement with the union,” said Commissioner Michael Góngora, who hopes to find common ground with the bargaining unit within the month.
If an agreement cannot be reached, however, the commission must undertake certain “undesirable” alternatives if it is intent on balancing this year’s finances. Those alternatives could include transitioning some city employees from full-time to part-time status, closing pools or lifeguard stands, or lay offs.
In the meantime, the commission passed a measure to increase the fee for filing appeals of special masters fines that target property infractions; reduce contributions to non-profits; and increase fees on sidewalk cafés.
Some residents don’t think that goes far enough.
“The economic reality is that we have a substantial downturn, and how that’s not commensurate with a shrinking government is wrong,” said resident Gabrielle Redfern. “And to put that on the back of taxpayers—that’s doubly wrong.”
Redfern points to revenue enhancements, like un-metered parking in the city, which could be tapped for extra funds.
Another resident, Debbie Leibowitz, who spoke at the meeting, encouraged commissioners to be creative in finding alternative sources of income.
“I really wonder why we aren’t looking at other sources of revenue, looking at sponsorships and advertising dollars. I think there is a lot of money to be made in terms of advertising revenue in the city,” Leibowitz said.