For Mayor Gimenez, economy eases pressure on Miami-Dade budget

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez faces a far less bruising budget session this year as he prepares to submit a 2016 spending plan that’s described as expanding services and spending, rather than cutting them.

At this time last year, Gimenez was warning of a $64 million revenue gap for 2015, which he proposed to close with significant staffing cuts in the police department, higher bus fares and the closing of a public golf course. But with property taxes growing, Gimenez plans to unveil a budget Tuesday that offers more spending without higher rates on the property taxes that fund large chunks of Miami-Dade functions, according to several people who have spoken to him.

“Things seem to be a lot better this year, that’s for sure,” said County Commissioner Dennis Moss, who met privately with Gimenez on the draft budget. “I feel a lot better about this year’s budget.”

A 9 percent increase in property values this year is generating an additional $122 million for a budget that tops $6 billion, according to revenue figures released Monday by the budget office. The original forecast assumed a 5.5 percent gain in values, or about $74 million in additional revenue. But appraisal data released July 1 showed much higher gains, so Miami-Dade will have about $48 million extra in property-tax revenue to spend in 2016, according to the budget office.

Moss said the 2016 spending plan will have more dollars for mowing the grass at parks and on county roadsides. Tall grass during the rainy summer of 2014 became a top complaint among county commissioners as the Gimenez administration cut back on the cutting schedule to save money.

Lynn Summers, a top advocate for the county’s library system, said Gimenez told her the 2016 budget will include more money for the county’s branches. That will mean an extra day of service for some, and a significant increase in the money available for purchasing books and electronic materials, she said. “It’s a big bump-up,” she said.

The mayor’s proposed budget won’t be released to the public until a 12:30 p.m. press conference Tuesday at PortMiami, and administration officials were not commenting on the specifics Monday afternoon. Gimenez has long said he wasn’t planning on asking for higher tax rates to fund operations, though the property tax that funds voter-authorized debt was forecast to increase in 2016. That forecast was based on countywide property values increasing 5.5 percent.

Water rates were already expected to increase 6 percent as part of a multi-year plan to increase borrowing for repair work.

In an interview with WPLG Local 10 that aired Monday afternoon, Gimenez confirmed flat property-tax rates for 2016, and said libraries, parks, police and transit fare particularly well.

“We’ll be able to have more police officers on the street,” Gimenez said in the report. “There are no problems with our library system. Our park system, we want to do enhancements with that.”

Commissioner Sally Heyman said she was encouraged to hear that next year’s police budget will include money for new cadets to replace departing officers, as well as extra dollars for equipment. Gimenez has already said he will propose an additional $1 million for police body cameras. “The department is going to be fully funded,” Heyman said.

Police is the largest single department in Miami-Dade government, and it was hit by some cost-saving measures imposed throughout the bureaucracy this year even as Gimenez restored a large chunk of the proposed cuts for 2015. This year’s police budget includes about $2.9 million in savings from eliminating 11 positions and delaying purchases of computers, Tasers and tactical vests.

Commissioners Rebeca Sosa and Jose “Pepe” Diaz have both proposed legislation urging more police funding to boost staffing levels. Sosa said she was encouraged by Gimenez’s private budget briefing, but added that the fine print on the spending plan will tell the story. “I will review it carefully,” she said of three-volume budget set to be released Tuesday. “Now we start working.”

John Rivera, head of the county’s police union, said the current budget short-changes public safety, and that it’s unlikely Gimenez can fix that with his 2016 plan. “I think it’s still in a poor condition,” he said. “I don’t think we’re providing the level of public safety that we should be. Quite honestly, I’m not sure we’ll ever see it under this administration.”

Gimenez took office in 2011 with the promise to roll back an unpopular increase in property-tax rates implemented by his predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, during the real estate crisis. Gimenez eliminated the increase, and the lower rates continue to shape county spending. County financial documents show property-tax revenue hit $1.35 billion for the budget year that ended Sept. 30. 2014.

That’s the highest of Gimenez’s tenure, but still about $160 million below collections in the year he took office.

Gimenez faces reelection next year, and this will be his final budget cycle before the August 2016 primary. He faced criticism last year for presenting a dire budget picture in the beginning of the process, only to walk back much of the bad news in the weeks that followed the budget’s debut. Gimenez defended the process, saying it was based on conservative estimates that gave way to a more encouraging reality.

Property values were increasing last year, too, and other factors were at work to complicate the 2015 budget, which was approved by commissioners in September. A surge in appeals of property assessments cut into revenue, and Gimenez was demanding pay cuts and concessions from unions as the budget process got started. He offered his budget as a worst-case scenario, and one that could be avoided if unions compromised.

Labor groups balked at the pay cuts, but half agreed to the new health-insurance system that Gimenez offered as part of the new three-year union contracts. Gimenez backed off most of the proposed lay-offs, using one-time savings, the elimination of vacant positions and efficiency changes to close the gap. The county’s charity grants were cut by 10 percent, and Gimenez pulled a planned $1.4 million increase in the subsidy for the Pérez Art Museum Miami in order to fund police positions.

With the expiration of all union contracts last fall, a series of pay increases automatically snapped into effect. Those pay increases played a large role in last year’s budget crunch, but they’re baked in for the 2016 cycle. Unions for police, fire, water-and-sewer and transit have yet to agree to new three-year contracts, but are seeing higher compensation from the pay increases that went into effect on Oct. 1.

Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said the higher property-tax revenue should not automatically trigger a green light for higher spending. He wants more dollars to go into the county’s emergency reserves, and for the county to consider lowering tax rates.

“Let’s not take all of the revenue and spend it,” he said. “You could leave some of it in the taxpayers’ pockets.”