Miami-Dade commission 'saves' $90 million in programs, now must cut
By Risa Polansky
At one of their last meetings before approving a final budget today (9/17), Miami-Dade commissioners — facing a $444 million budget gap — knew what they wouldn't give up: more than $90 million in programs and services.
But they had yet to address what to cut to make up for it.
They spent nearly five hours Tuesday buying back cuts Mayor Carlos Alvarez recommended in his proposed budget but didn't suggest how to fill those newly dug holes with funding reductions and adjustments of their own.
Their plan as of Tuesday night was to reconvene Wednesday to step up to the chopping block in preparation for today's final budget hearing.
After weeks of budget discussions that helped pin down numbers and flesh out priorities but ended without decisions, commissioners elected Tuesday in a 7-6 straw vote to begin the meeting deciding which programs and services to save.
The minority hoped to begin with cuts and address buy-backs afterward.
No decisions are final, as the commission could take only informal votes at this type of meeting, but the idea was to build consensus leading into today's expected marathon hearing.
Among areas they agreed to spare entirely: elderly services, $17 million; cultural programs, $11.1 million; and funding for veterans and the disabled, $358,000 and $990,000 respectively.
They voted to restore partial funding to other areas, such as 75% back to mom-and-pop business grants, 75% back to the Head Start childcare and education program, 60% back to parks and 75% back to community-based organizations, except for those that serve the elderly and toddlers, which won't see any cuts at all.
After voting earlier this month to keep the tax rate the same as last year rather than raise it to generate more revenue as the mayor had suggested, commissioners said they'd make up for the new $17 million gap by dipping into the reserves.
They agreed Tuesday to restore that money to reserves.
Other programs and services that won't see the cuts the mayor recommended include the fire department's anti-venom unit, where commissioners restored $480,000; The Miami-Dade Sports Commission, which is to get $500,000 back; a helicopter that sprays mosquito repellent, which gets back $100,000; and the county's Agriculture and Cattle Show, which is to get $100,000 in the fiscal 2010 budget.
None of the more than 15 budget restorations that commissioners proposed was voted down.
Katy Sorenson, chair of the county's budget committee, was visibly frustrated.
Since July she's called for "real numbers" and cautioned commissioners that if they wanted to save something, they'd have to cut something else.
Some complied, drafting written proposals for cuts or suggesting them verbally at past meetings.
Some areas that may yet face the axe: spending on new furniture, executive benefits for those highest paid and travel expenses.
Departments could be consolidated as part of some commissioners' budget suggestions.
The group didn't discuss those or other reduction ideas Tuesday.
"Having a wish list without cuts doesn't make any sense," Ms. Sorenson said at the start of the meeting, protesting the beginning of the process by naming desired buy-backs rather than reductions.
Mayor Alvarez weighed in partway through to point out to commissioners that by that time they'd restored $84 million in programs and services without proposing any cuts.
He noted that, as a former police director and current mayor, he's no stranger to crafting budgets — and "I don't recall ever finding $84 million."
Still, commissioners pressed on.
In agreeing at almost 7 p.m. to recess and reconvene Wednesday, they acknowledged the task ahead.
"The heavy lifting starts now," Chair Dennis Moss said.
Agreed Commissioner Carlos Gimenez: "Now that we've got our wish list, I think we need to get back to reality… The next step is doing the cuts."
Commissioner Joe Martinez noted that commissioners had yet to address some of the mayor's major proposed changes, such as a 5% across-the-board pay cut.
Mr. Gimenez predicted that even after agreeing on cuts "we're going to find ourselves short. Then we're going to have to come back to our wish list and prioritize."
Ms. Sorenson said the same.
"We all know we can't restore all these things at this level and balance this budget."
Today's final budget hearing begins at 5:01 p.m. in the commission chambers at the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami, 111 NW First St.