Several Miami Beach residents joined the 120 speakers that came before the Miami-Dade County Commission last week during the first of two public hearings on next year’s fiscal budget.
When the meeting kicked off at twenty-five past five, the Commission Chamber was packed with dignitaries, county staffers and the public. An overflow area in the lobby was installed with a screen and speakers so the 75 or more persons would not be left out of the cold, and could listen to the proceedings as they awaited their turn to enter the chamber and speak.
Twice as many people had come out this time last year to rally against the infamous Carlos Alverez-proposed budget, which increased taxes for residents and gave raises to members of his staff and pushed building the new Marlins stadium. This year’s budget, assembled in a record-setting two weeks by rebound-mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, fulfilled a campaign promise and rolled back the hated tax increase. Additionally, he hoped to erase the incentives and pay increases awarded to ten county unions during the last contract negations three years ago.
So in lieu of the “No more taxes” cry of 2010, this year’s message was “No more cuts!”
Former Commissioner Katy Sorenson, whom many on the Beach considered their “third commissioner” because of her progressive stands on the fiscal matters and steadfast support on holding firm the Urban Development Boundary, was the first public speaker of the over six-hour meeting. After donning her ‘first hat’ she spoke of her chairmanship of the General Obligation Bond program, and her disappointment that the proposal for reducing the debt load from a whopping .445 mills to .205 mills in 2011-2012 will slow capitol progress. She then doffed her second cap as she gave back the difference between last years’ tax bill and this year’s proposed assessment on the house she owns with her husband in South Dade: $294.30. ‘It may be too much of a bargain” to live in South Florida, she said, “We feel privileged to contribute to public investment for the commonwealth”.
Commission Chair Joe Martinez quickly pointed to the County Clerk, Miami Beach resident Harvey Ruvin as the man ready to accept her check, which she turned right over.
While these theatrics may have been appreciated, a little later 13 union members from local ASFME (American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees) each presented the clerk with cards signed by 1000 families in each commission district. Vice Chair Audrey Edmonson controlled the meeting, as Chairman Martinez was out in the vestibule being interviewed for the 6:00 p.m. news. “Are we going to have more theatrics?” she complained after the first two members presented their bundle of cards, with the words “I am a County employee. I am a resident. I am a taxpayer.”
In between, Miami Beach resident Beatriz Montanez of Arts for Learning foreshadowed the overwhelming sentiment of the night: spare the arts, culture and other community-based organizations in the funding holocaust. Closing a $400 million-dollar budget gap takes some strong, deep cutting. The County resources dedicated to recreation and culture are proposed to be reduced by over $22 million, a decrease of 12 percent. Health and human services were also poised for 7 percent less funding next year as compared to last year.
A review of the listing of CBO allocations proposed by the administration reveals the fate of several organization of interest on Miami Beach. While Jewish Community Services, Best Buddies International, Charlee of Dade County and UNIDAD of Miami Beach were proposed to be fully funded again, the Girl Scout Council of Tropical Florida, National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Miami Section, and the Miami Beach Latin Chamber of Commerce are among those on tap to receive less than half the funding for some or all of programs or activities in the coming year.
Alexis Delgado, who lives on Collins Avenue, came to thank the mayor and commission for their continuing support of the Miami Science Museum. As a member of the museum’s Young Patrons Board, she was very excited about the building program underway for the new museum in Bicentennial Park. “We have a wonderful program with a family environment,” she extolled.
In contrast, Rene Fernandez was not so happy about what drove him to wait for almost four hours after working two jobs to speak about the hits county workers will be taking under the proposed plan. To balance his budget, Gimenez must have over $238 million dollars in employee concessions in the next fiscal year. Most of the savings to taxpayers will come from required higher contributions from employees for their health insurance and benefits, totaling almost $100 million dollars.
Fernandez emotionally implored the elected officials to instead “raise revenue” and have “less cutting”. He spoke of the pain he and other employees are experiencing, observing that those on the dais have “lost sight of what is important,” with people “just not valued anymore.”
“This plan causes a negative effect,” he continued. “You want to fix a budget problem by making the economy shrink” that puts thousands out of work or on much smaller salaries.
By 9:30 p.m. the chamber had emptied, and only a few hearty and warmly dressed souls remained to hear the last of the public comment. As the commissioners and the mayor retook their seats (with the exception of newly-elected Xavier Suarez, who never sat down all evening except to speak), the chamber refilled with high-level staff and department directors ready for ‘The Showdown over the T.O.”
At a previous meeting, the Commissioners blessed the lower tax rate, leading to the reduced budget and leaving them little wriggle room for change. Part of the budget presented included the campaign promise of making smaller government proposed by Gimenez, a Republican. Gimenez’ reorganization of County Hall features consolidating 42 departments into 25 “with functions that will best serve our residents,” as his reorganization plan stated.
The stakes were very high for those in the room. Many department directors, and even more assistant directors and other high-level staff may not lose their jobs with the county, but they will surely lose their posts and possibly the perks that accompany those posts if the plan moves forward. The Commission loves big government with employees loyal to them so they can hand out more and ever-better resources, courtesy of the County, in their districts. Chairman Martinez, although cordial to the mayor and almost jovial in his handling the meeting, at the beginning, showed his opposition to the plan by seeking to separate the discussion and action on the new Table of Organization from the budget vote “What’s the rush?” he asked.
Miami Beach’s commissioners, Bruno Barreiro to the south and Sally Heyman to the north, both spoke about their likes and peeves in the proposals. Heyman was “enjoying this budget process” and advocated finding funding for items such as the two fireboats, criminal aversion programs like Boot Camp and more Ocean Rescue resources than have been proposed. “Tourism is important and the ocean is our draw,” she argued.
Barreiro was concerned about the GO Bond programs, indicating a future storm brewing, “We will need to make very difficult decisions about what projects are in and what projects are out” with the lower debt capacity proposed by Gimenez. His list of salvageable items included Mom and Pop grants to small businesses, the justice system’s highly acclaimed Boot Camp, more spay and neuter programs and more lifeguards, which are “very key to our community—a major tourist and resident issue.”
Barreiro did hint at his support of a smaller government, and uttered words that were suggested earlier in the week by robotic parking magnate Russell Galbut at the Miami Beach Taxpayers Association. “Rather than consolidate, eliminate DERM (the Department of Environmental Resource Management, and send permitting back to the State”, he stated, as a way of dealing with some of the unfunded mandates handed down by the Florida Legislature and Governor. “Send some of that back upstream,” was his advice.
Barreiro, Heyman and other commissioners will each get ‘private time’ with the Mayor and his staff, budget director Jennifer Glazer-Moon, who at times could not answer basic questions poised about her budget from the commissioners. There, behind closed doors, they will attempt to hash out a compromise where enough commissioners extract enough pledges for the mayor to gain the needed votes.
The drama and fireworks continue September 22nd at County Hall (150 NW 1st Street Miami) at 5 p.m. And here’s a tip: If you want to speak early bring your kids. Children get you to the front of the line!