Dade governments and organizations make their case for limited state funds
By Risa Polansky
In what is set to be a tough budget year, with the state facing a potential $2 billion deficit, hungry governments and government-backed organizations are hoping for their piece of the Florida Legislature's paltry pie.
Or at least, lawmakers' support for their causes.
Municipalities and organizations from across the county last week shared their needs with the Miami-Dade legislative delegation at a hearing, most acknowledging that the state hasn't much to give but stressing the importance of funding or supporting what they called essentials — namely, housing, education, infrastructure, and programs and projects aimed at bolstering safety and quality of life.
Miami-Dade commissioners last week approved a 14-plus page package of legislative priorities to transmit to state lawmakers.
"I don't think anyone at the county level is so naďve to think that the things that we've laid out in that legislative package are going to be remotely easy for anyone to deal with," County Manager George Burgess told state representatives and senators at the hearing. "We are realists."
Still, he said, some needs the county is "really, really passionate about."
Three of the five the county lists as "critical priorities" concern affordable housing.
Mr. Burgess urged legislators to extend the Miami-Dade County Affordable Housing Surtax on commercial deeds and mortgages. It's set to sunset in 2011.
Through the surtax, "millions of dollars have been generated that have provided thousands of units of affordable housing," he said. "I can't stress enough how important that one item is. It's just huge."
He implored also that lawmakers push to close a loophole that allows some commercial real estate transfers to circumvent paying the surtax as well as documentary stamp taxes, which also in part benefit affordable housing projects.
The loophole — which allows companies to skip the taxes by arranging deals as asset transfers in a corporation rather than as real property sales — has cost the county millions, Mr. Burgess said.
Also impeding money for affordable housing is a cap on the state's affordable housing trust fund.
"Lifting the cap would obviously put more housing money in a constrained period of time," Mr. Burgess said.
Other county priorities include ensuring legislative support for preserving funding to Miami-Dade programs, as well as supporting Jackson Health System.
"We're always concerned about Jackson Memorial Hospital," Mr. Burgess said. "Its financial challenges are enormous."
The county asks in its legislative priorities that lawmakers support all Jackson legislative requests, as well as a request for $20 million in general revenue, which the state granted the past two years.
Jeanette Nuñez, Jackson Health System's vice president of government relations, also attended the hearing to stress Jackson's needs to lawmakers.
Because of state budget constraints, hospitals face reductions to programs benefiting the un- and underinsured even as those populations grow.
As the largest contributor to the state's Low Income Pool, which helps make possible care for Medicaid underinsured and uninsured populations, it's imperative Jackson see its fair share, she said.
Rep. Juan C. Zapata of central Miami-Dade agreed.
Sen. Nan Rich, who represents parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, suggested lobbying in Washington to urge Congress to attach strings to its stimulus package so healthcare sees benefits.
State lawmakers at the meeting also rallied behind education.
After a presentation by a Miami-Dade Public Schools representative, Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach said that through his children he can see already budget cuts affecting classrooms.
Karen Aronowitz, president of United Teachers of Dade, backed up his observations, as did Rep. Dwight Bullard, a teacher.
"The reality is, what's going on in the classroom, maybe unbeknownst to a lot of you, is we're in crisis mode right now," he said.
The same is happening at Miami Dade College, President Eduardo Padrón said.
"We have just one priority," he told legislators. "Only one: survival. You know I'm not an alarmist… but I can assure you that we have reached a crisis level."
Some programs at the college are "totally paralyzed because we have lost faculty, we have lost technicians and we have not been able to replace them," he said.
The student body has grown 9% over the past year — "9% that has not been funded," Mr. Padrón said, asking lawmakers to "please make sure that if you do nothing else this year you fund enrollment for the college."
County voters showed support last month for a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed Florida counties to ask voters to OK increased sales taxes to support community colleges.
But Miami-Dade was the only county to draw enough support, and the amendment failed.
It did serve, however, to illustrate the sentiment of local voters.
"I think the voters have spoken and I think this delegation owes you a good, fair shot," Rep. Zapata said.
Sen. Gelber agreed.
"I think that's going to be one of the great obligations of this delegation this year."
He noted also that the college fuels the county's economic engine, building an educated workforce that could attract high-wage jobs.
Economic stimulus is the goal for the City of Doral, according to its request to legislators.
The city is asking for $9.2 million with matching funds to add to the police force's narcotics and gang-related units and do projects including transit infrastructure and streets improvements.
Officials anticipate the infusion would create 48 jobs.
The City of Miami "has a very conservative agenda this year in light of the financial crisis that our state is currently facing," Interim Director of Government Relations Kirk Menendez told lawmakers.
The city has prioritized projects "crucial" to residents' safety and quality of life.
"The key projects or programs that we currently will be bringing to Tallahassee basically have to do with flood mitigation," he said.
Key Biscayne Manager Chip Iglesias asked for funding for the village's ongoing water and sewer projects.
In West Miami, it was funds for the city's community center.
And in Cutler Bay, simply "to hang on to what we have," Manager Steven Alexander said.
Lawmakers heard also from organizations such as Camillus House, The Children's Trust and others.
Regular state legislative sessions convene in March, though some — including state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink — have suggested a special meeting prior to address budget concerns.