Indecision marks Miami-Dade commission's first budget try
By Risa Polansky
Balancing Miami-Dade County's budget is off to a rocky start.
The commission met Tuesday to set a tax rate ceiling — and couldn't after more than five different votes, with some commissioners opposing cutting services, pay or jobs while at the same time refusing to consider raising taxes.
After about five hours of back and forth, they deferred a millage decision until 9 a.m. today (7/23).
Setting a tax rate cap allows the county property appraiser to mail a truth in millage, or TRIM, notice to property owners in mid-August.
It doesn't lock commissioners in.
As they tackle the budget through September, they're able to set a final millage at or below the advertised ceiling.
Generally, the commission sets a cap high enough to at least allow for flexibility in considering budget cuts — a point Chair Dennis Moss made several times Tuesday.
But in a recession, several commissioners were unwilling to leave open the opportunity to raise taxes even slightly.
Others pushed to keep all options on the table.
Zero of at least five proposals drew majority support.
Mayor Carlos Alvarez last week unveiled a budget proposal that calls for raising part of the millage slightly, eliminating 1,780 county positions, cutting pay 5% across the board, eliminating funding to community based organizations, and other measures to fill a $427 million gap created by plummeting property tax and other revenues.
A vote on his proposed 9.8 total millage failed by a 12-1 margin.
A vote to raise the millage to the state-defined "rollback rate" — a rate adjusted to generate the same amount of money the county collected the previous fiscal year, which here would be 11.01 — died 9-4.
And a vote to leave the rate where it stands today, 9.74, failed with the same margin.
Commissioner Natacha Seijas, complaining the commission had little time to digest the mayor's budget proposal, pushed to end the discussion without setting a rate ceiling.
If the commission can't agree on a millage, it's up to the property appraiser to set and advertise the rollback rate.
That move would allow the commission flexibility in balancing the budget — without being directly responsible for the higher millage ceiling.
She saw some support but drew criticism from others, who said defaulting to the appraiser is the same as a vote for the rollback, only with less accountability.
"With authority comes responsibility, not abdication," said Commissioner Katy Sorenson, chair of the county budget committee and a fan of setting the rollback rate. "So this is our job to do, so let's put on our grown-up pants and do it."
Ms. Seijas' proposal died 9-4.
The hours-long impasse led to a late afternoon recess after which the still-deadlocked commission agreed to try again later.
If commissioners don't agree on a millage cap by an Aug. 4 deadline, the property appraiser by default would advertise the rollback rate.
Mayor Alvarez looked on during the lengthy discourse, chiming in more than once to remind commissioners that a $427 million gap won't close itself.
"What I'm hearing is we can't raise taxes… but we can't cut services and we can't lay off anybody. How are we going to do that?" he said. "Please. If you find a way, tell me. Because I've spent months trying to find a way."