Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Miami-Dade mayor proposes higher property-tax rate

By Patricia Mazzei

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Tuesday proposed raising the property-tax rate for the first time in three years to stave off cuts to fire and library services and fund a plan to stop killing dogs and cats at the county’s animal shelter.
The mayor’s 2013-14 budget increases the overall tax rate by 4.06 percent, a hike Gimenez said would avoid fire station and public library closures and pay for the animal-welfare plan that nearly 65 percent of Miami-Dade voters approved in a non-binding ballot question in November.

In an unincorporated neighborhood such as Kendall, a homeowner with a taxable property value of $200,000 would pay an additional $75.20 in county taxes, which make up only a portion of the tax bill.
Gimenez had cautioned in May that the county faced a $50.7 million general-fund budget hole, in addition to a $15 million library budget shortfall and a $15 million fire-rescue budget gap. Library and fire services are funded from property taxes separate from the general fund.

To close the general-fund gap, the county froze vacant positions, used one-time money available from tourist dollars known as convention development taxes and relied on higher projections from sales taxes and other revenues.

But that was not enough to plug the fire and library budgets. The tax base, which grew for the second consecutive year thanks to climbing property values, did not expand as much as county administrators had hoped, Gimenez said, and Florida lawmakers imposed higher, unforeseen healthcare and pension expenses on local governments.

His short-lived plan to shutter 13 libraries two years ago received so much pushback from county commissioners who must ultimately set the tax rate and approve the budget that the mayor this time decided to suggest a tax-rate hike instead.

“I don’t believe the people of Miami-Dade County want to cut back on library services or fire services,” Gimenez said.

But while the higher tax rate might prevent a political battle over libraries and fire stations, it will do nothing to stem conflict with the county’s labor unions over concessions that had been scheduled to expire next year.
Gimenez’s budget calls for workers to continue contributing 5 percent of their base pay toward health insurance costs, as well as for the extension of other concessions particular to each union. Most union contracts, negotiated for a three-year period, provide for reopening certain agreement provisions if the contribution is to continue past Jan. 1, 2014. The firefighters union is exempt because it has its own healthcare plan.

Union chiefs have accused the county of carrying a $42 million surplus in its health-insurance trust fund, which the administration counters helps maintain employee benefits and hold the line against health-insurance rate increases in the future. Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin has agreed to conduct a financial audit of the fund at the unions’ request.

“We can’t figure out where is the end of this surplus account. What is it being built up for?” Terry Murphy, a public affairs consultant working for the unions, told the Miami Herald’s editorial board on Monday. “The commissioners have no idea about this money.”

The county has already declared an impasse over the concession provisions — excluding the healthcare contribution, which is still pending — with five unions. A sixth, representing solid waste workers, is at impasse over both the healthcare contribution and the other concessions.
“I anticipate a fight with labor,” Gimenez acknowledged.

The higher tax rate would be the first pushed for by Gimenez, who took the county reins after a frustrated electorate ousted former Mayor Carlos Alvarez in a recall prompted by Alvarez’s wildly unpopular 2010 tax-rate hike and employee pay raises.

In the painful budget he delivered two weeks after taking office in 2011 to complete Alvarez’s term, Gimenez reversed his predecessor’s handiwork and called for severe services cuts, layoffs and dramatic concessions from county workers. Last year, a month before his reelection bid for a full four-year term, Gimenez proposed further reducing the tax rate, that time maintaining services and avoiding job losses.
This article will be updated as more information becomes available.

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