County Finance Panel Recommends Hiring Freeze
By Dan Dolan
Faced with pending state legislation to revamp the property tax system and slash local governments’ revenue, Miami-Dade County commissioners Tuesday tentatively approved a controversial plan that would cap spending by forcing Mayor Carlos Alvarez to impose a freeze on all hiring.
Despite unanimous action by the commission’s Budget and Finance Committee, a hiring moratorium isn’t a done deal. Enacting it would require approval of the entire commission — and that faces stiff opposition from Mr. Alvarez and County Manager George Burgess, who want to shape Miami-Dade’s response to state tax cut proposals.
But commissioners are under mounting pressure to find ways to deal with what they see as an impending financial disaster. A commission delegation was headed to Tallahassee Wednesday (3/14) for a full tax briefing from legislative leaders. On Friday, the commission is to hold an unusual special session dedicated to exploring the impact of property tax changes.
Depending on the final details of the state plan, tax reform could result in the wholesale dismemberment of county departments and social programs, officials say.
"Right now, we’re faced with revenue cuts of 35% under some state plans," said Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, who sponsored the hiring freeze plan. "The public wants tax reform. It’s going to happen. We should start to get ready for it now and be ahead of the curve."
He said the hiring freeze was designed to force the county to confront grim financial realities that will exist if the property tax system is scrapped or turned on its ear. He said a hiring freeze is "painless" since it doesn’t affect current county employees or operations.
But Mr. Burgess pressed the committee to shelve the freeze. He contended staffing decisions belong to the mayor, not the commission. The proposed moratorium intrudes on the executive branch’s administrative powers, he said.
Mr. Burgess’ comments drew a stinging response from Mr. Gimenez.
"We don’t have the right to tell you who to hire, but we do have the right to tell you how many to hire," Mr. Gimenez said. "We are the people who determine the county’s priorities, not you. It’s your job to get them done with the resources we give you."
Mr. Gimenez said county government must accept that it will have fewer resources if the property tax system changes. He said a hiring freeze is just the first step.
But commissioners Joe Martinez, Jose "Pepe" Diaz and Rebeca Sosa said they have reservations about the plan, even though they voted to send it to the entire commission for a final decision in April.
By then, the commission may know the exact scope of the state legislation. Mr. Gimenez said a freeze wouldn’t be put in place until June, which would give commissioners plenty of time to sort out their differences with the mayor.