In Miami-Dade, 2014 labor talks only halfway done

Miami-Dade County’s 2014 labor negotiations seem ready to stretch well into 2015 — and maybe beyond.

At the moment, a little more than half of the county’s unionized county employees are covered by new three-year labor contracts. The holdouts: unions for the fire, transit , and water-and-sewer departments, as well as the law-enforcement union that represents police officers and jail guards.

Together, those four unions represent 46 percent of the county’s 24,500 employees covered by labor agreements. The previous batch of three-year contracts covering all county unions expired Oct. 1, meaning Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration still has to negotiate deals covering about 11,000 employees.

Union leaders and county officials don’t sound encouraging about the prospects of wrapping up anytime soon, with no talks between Miami-Dade and the labor groups since late 2014. “Right now, we’re at a standstill,” said Al Cruz, president of the firefighters union, which represents about 1,900 workers.

The extended negotiations for the hold-out unions add another contentious element to Miami-Dade’s political mix as elected leaders prepare for the last full budget cycle before the mayor and seven commissioners face reelection in 2016.

Police union chief John Rivera, a top Gimenez foe, said his negotiating team wouldn’t mind seeing the contract talks overlap with the mayor’s reelection effort.

“We’d love it to be right in the middle of his campaign,” said Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association. The PBA has about 5,000 members and represents the largest labor group still at the negotiating table.

Rivera’s statement drew a rebuke from Gimenez’s communications chief, Michael Hernández.

“Mr. Rivera should put politics aside and actually try to do the work that would best benefit his members,” Hernández said. “He’s put politics in front of the people.”

Gimenez knows he’ll face union opposition in 2016, and the contract battles could give him a chance to reprise his 2011 election theme of fighting for lower taxes instead of higher government paychecks. But with police and fire unions still at odds with his administration on workforce pay, he also risks being branded a mayor who wants to skimp on public safety.

Gimenez last year proposed police cuts for 2015, but then backed off in the face of criticism from commissioners and residents. He’s counting on higher property values to avoid another bruising budget process, since some of the gaps this year were filled with one-time revenue sources. But the labor stalemate already has Gimenez aides warning of consequences.

Administration officials said they were counting on savings from a new police-union healthcare plan to free up about $4 million to fund the county’s Boot Camp youth-offender program in 2015. But with the PBA declining to sign up for the new healthcare options without a contract, the Gimenez administration says there may not be enough money to extend Boot Camp into 2016.

“If we have savings within the budget based on an agreement with the PBA, then we will absolutely move forward and restore boot camp,” Hernández said. “But at this point, it isn’t budgeted for next year.”

Jennifer Moon, Gimenez’s budget director, said the administration would “of course” try to extend Boot Camp funding if the dollars are available in 2016, even if the police-contract issue isn’t resolved. If the two sides can’t reach a deal, the negotiations could get bumped into the formal “impasse” process, which eventually would land the matter in front of the commission for a vote.

Commissioners last year eliminated a 5 percent pay deduction over the mayor’s veto, and he’s warning that Miami-Dade’s improving budget picture would be upended if the hold-outs get their way on labor demands.

“There will be no threats of layoffs unless, of course, the county commission does something like give exorbitant contracts to the final five,” Gimenez told WLRN’s Sunshine Economy radio program this week. (While four unions are still in negotiations with Miami-Dade, they represent five bargaining units since PBA has separate arms for supervisors and officers.)

Last fall, Miami-Dade commissioners approved contracts for five bargaining units representing airport workers, port employees, supervisors, front-line staffers and others throughout the county bureaucracy. Even without the new deals, unions were set for higher pay in 2015. A package of temporary pay concessions, which Gimenez won after taking office in 2011, automatically expired Oct. 1 with the end of the previous three-year contracts.

In their new deals, all unions were offered a new healthcare option, which county officials expect to save Miami-Dade money while still lowering premium costs for employees’ family members. The adopted contracts also provide for a 1 percent pay increase in 2017 if property-tax revenues exceed forecasts — raises that would come on top of the compensation boosts that are essentially automatic as employees extend their time on the county payroll.

To give raises beyond what he proposed, Gimenez claims property taxes would need to increase. In his interview, Rivera was asked if he thought Miami-Dade needed to raise property taxes. “Oh yeah, I think they do,” Rivera replied. “You’ve got services that are suffering. At the end of the day, it’s matter of quality of life.”

The 2011 labor concessions were part of a budget package Gimenez secured that year, including a property-tax cut that remains mostly intact today. But he now faces a new chairman of the County Commission, Jean Monestime, who is not ruling out the need for a tax increase for 2016. Monestime voted against the mayor’s successful proposal to slightly lower the county’s general property tax this year in order to accommodate a higher library tax, and Monestime also lost out on a bid to raise the county’s fire tax.

Monestime hired a union consultant, Terry Murphy, as a top adviser, giving labor leaders another well-placed ally as the budget process begins this spring. Emilio Azoy, president of the AFSCME chapter representing the county’s water-and-sewer workers, said he wasn’t optimistic the contracts would be resolved by then.

“It may stretch into the budget, or even next year,” Azoy said. “I’m not backing down from my position.”