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Front Page » Opinion » A Day Late 444 Million Short And Worse Is Yet To Come

A Day Late 444 Million Short And Worse Is Yet To Come

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Written by on September 17, 2009

By Michael Lewis
If law didn’t require Miami-Dade to complete its budget this week, commissioners could debate for months over what to cut and what to restore to do the least harm in paring $444 million to match fallen revenues.

That debate could be fruitful. Whacking millions is easy. Deciding exactly where to whack them is anything but.

Unfortunately, time is up. By Thursday night, the budget must be done.

Also unfortunately, bargaining with unions that represent 87% of the county’s 29,027 fulltime workers over a proposed 5% pay cut won’t be anywhere near finished this week.

And that means that whatever budget is adopted will be unfinished business. As the fiscal year begins Oct. 1, Miami-Dade is unlikely to know how much more must be cut, and where, if union talks stumble.

Granted, the county commission has the last word on pay cuts — but whether it has the political will to go up against a union is doubtful. Unions play far better hardball than commissioners.

Budgetary uncertainty is the name of the game today and will be the name of the game after the budget vote.

It’s easy to complain that late revenue figures from the property appraiser put the process behind.

Or that a last-minute budget proposal from Mayor Carlos Alvarez compounded the felony.

Or that commissioners took it nice and slow in setting the final tax rate.

Or that they then skipped precious days of work to hone the budget, causing further delay and exacerbated an already perilous process.

There’s plenty of blame for all.

But in truth most blame for what’s sure to be a slipshod budget that will please no one should fall on the process more than the players. It is a process that needs intense overhaul now so that next year’s budget contains fewer pitfalls and more rational deliberation.

The fact is, despite clear signals several years ago, few in authority at the county recognized the peril of a massive property tax decline that would gouge deeply into tax receipts and hence spending.

As long as tax receipts kept rising, the mayor and commission could take care of their pet concerns each year with no real pain in the county.

If a rising tide lifts all boats, a rising tax roll covers all political needs.

But the tide is out, and it will go further out next year because no new construction this year will fill tax roll gaps to replace losses in value of existing homes and commercial realty.

And those tax gaps will cut far deeper next year than this.

A few weeks of trying to restore painful cuts from the mayor’s budget and figuring out what else to whack in return won’t be the appropriate commission response next year, any more than it was this summer.

As it works now, the mayor proposes a budget that is really the creation of County Manager George Burgess and his team. Commissioners then putter around, adding a bit here, subtracting a bit there, and stamp their name on the output.

But never did the commissioners start with a budget of their own making.

Commissioner Bruno Barreiro wants to change that. He wants a full budget staff for the commission to parallel the manager’s and a complete budget to vie with the mayor’s.

That seems wasteful duplication. Why can’t commissioners just get figures from the manager’s budget office and work from there?

Because, unfortunately, commissioners get less than cooperation from Mr. Burgess. When they asked in budget deliberations for a survey of eligible employees on retirement incentives, he silently ignored the order. Later, he called the idea unwise.

Maybe so. But the county charter requires him to carry out commission requests, wise or unwise in his opinion.

Unsecure in the knowledge that the manager is likely to rig the budget game again, commissioners may feel forced to add to spending to get around an uncooperative staff by hiring their own.

A wiser step would be to rearrange staff so that those in key posts do their duties under the charter. That would save both aggravation and money.

Another wise commission step would be to start many months earlier to set priorities and build a budget long before the appraiser’s office reveals final revenue parameters. September is time for finishing touches, not basic deliberations.

Commissioners now rely on the strong mayor system. Mayor Carlos Alvarez, working with Mr. Burgess, sets all the parameters and then lets commissioners tinker a bit in August and September.

Working that way, commissioners can’t fulfill their formal role of policymaking. They leave that to a county manager, whose true role is to carry out the commission’s policies.

Commissioners should start now to revamp the budget process so that next year they don’t again wind up a day late and $444 million short.