Miami commissioners give initial OK to proposed budget, which calls for deferred payments to retiree health plans, garbage fee increase
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
Miami officials plan to erase $48.5 million in red ink in this year's budget by deferring $15 million in payments to the health plans of city retirees as well as setting aside $5.3 million less than planned for lawsuit payouts.
The shortfall is to be whittled further by a $40 increase in annual garbage collection fees and a cutback to once-monthly bulk trash pickups.
Commissioners gave the proposed $525.1 million spending plan an initial OK Thursday and will hold a final hearing and vote Sept. 25. The proposal calls for a slight tax increase to a budget that includes $1.4 million more spending than last year.
The deficit reduction strategy also involves eliminating 31 vacant positions and freezing another 36.
Further cuts of $13.5 million are to come from reductions in operating expenses of various departments. The fire department is to cut $2.1 million from its equipment purchasing budget and the police department $1.3 million from professional services.
The goal has been to maintain about the same level of services in areas such as police, fire-rescue and parks with a budget just $1.4 million bigger than last year, City Manager Pete Hernandez said.
Most departmental savings are to come from reducing operational expenses, ranging from office supplies, outsourcing work, professional services, operational supplies, travel and vehicle rentals and leases. The city will also delay replacing some vehicles.
Some departments are also permanently cutting or freezing vacant post, though "no one is getting terminated," Mr. Hernandez said, clarifying a previous report that 50 workers would be cut.
To eliminate the projected $48.5 million shortfall, the city plans to defer a contribution of $15 million to the Post Employment Benefits fund that covers health benefits for city retirees.
Mr. Hernandez said he is analyzing strategies to better contain these costs in upcoming years.
This year's 67 position cuts and freezes, along with some made last year, leaves the city with a total of 176 frozen or eliminated spots over the past two years, according to budget documents.
Positions getting axed include seven from the City Manager's Office, three from Employee Relations, four from the General Services Administration and three from the building department, said Michael Boudreaux, director of Strategic Planning, Budgeting, and Performance Management & Budget.
Of the frozen vacancies, 26 come from the parks department, two from the Auditor General and another two from General Services.
Property owners are to also see a slight increase in property taxes, as the city's proposed tax rate is to go to 7.67 mills from the current 7.30 per $1,000 of taxable property value. The tax rate is projected to generate about $267 million, Mr. Boudreaux said.
Commissioners discussed at length last week the proposal to raise the solid waste fee from $325 to $365 for residential units. The department is also reducing bulk trash pickup to once a month from the current monthly. "I still think we can get creative" and find other areas to cut the budget," said Commissioner Tomás Regalado of the residential rate increase.
Mario Soldevilla, director of solid waste, said the department needs the extra funding to buy equipment and trucks. He projected the hike will gain the city $3 million.
The first vote on the fee increase was locked, with commissioners Regalado and Marc Sarnoff and Chairman Joe Sanchez saying no.
But Mr. Sarnoff switched his vote to a yes in a second round of voting.
Mr. Boudreaux said no other fees are expected to rise next year, including those charged by departments such as building, planning and zoning.
Meanwhile, some departments are to get a boost in funding and manpower.
The budget allocates $12.7 million more for public safety, which includes police and fire-rescue services. The police department is also to get 25 more officers, which officials say should help reduce the department's overtime pay.
Parks and Recreation is in line for $2 million more to help support park programs. The city is also filling 10 new park posts as more staff is needed to run new facilities such as Grapeland water park and Little Haiti cultural park, Mr. Hernandez said.
The finance department is expected to add 14 jobs. Mr. Boudreaux said adding permanent positions should ease turnover in the department and in turn improve revenue collections.
Mr. Hernandez said the city was able to balance its budget without tapping into the city's $100 million reserves.
Miami's fiscal year begins Oct. 1.