Monday, August 12, 2013

The Tragedy of the Miami-Dade County Budget. Guest Blog By Santiago Leon

This was too good not to share with you all. It was written by a friend and civic activist.
Santiago Leon


This week there have been hearings on the County budget. Most of the audience and the speakers have been there either to oppose actual program cuts (libraries and Fire Rescue) or to insist that the Mayor and the Commissioners honor what the advocates view as a promise to establish a pets' trust. The County budget has not yet been made final, and there are more hearings to come (see link below). However, the events to date and the current status may be roughly summarized as follows:

- The Mayor prepared a proposed budget. The budget including some millage increases in the library and Fire Rescue budgets necessary to maintain funding and services at current levels. [See links below for budget details.]

- It is said that the Mayor did some polling- of citizens, of commissioners, or both- which indicated that tax increases were not wanted.

- The mayor modified his budget, and submitted it to the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) without any increases in millage. The BCC took a vote and gave preliminary approval to that budget by an 8-4 margin.

- This reduced budget will become final unless the mayor and the BCC decide to change it.

For reasons stated below, I believe that these events are evidence of the lack of leadership in our county. The following are a summary of the library issue, which I know better than the others, and a general observation about our lack of political leadership.

1. The library budget

The library system is operated by a special district which includes almost all the municipalities in the County. Since the system is separate from County government, funds cannot be moved from the County's general fund to the library system. Thus, the library system has its own budget, and is financed by the library millage included in our property taxes. (Our County's Fire Rescue services also have their own district, budget and millage). For the average homeowner, the library tax is about $30 per year.

It costs about $60 million a year to operate our library system. Our system is not exactly lavish, by the way. A typical major library is closed two days a week, one of which is Sunday, and closes at 6 pm on three of the remaining days. This is not ideal for families with children and kids working on school projects, not to mention the many other groups who depend on the libraries. So if anything, there is an argument that we should be spending more, not less, on our libraries

Anyway, for unique historical reasons, our library system started 2010 with a carryover of $72 million dollars. This has allowed us, for the last three years, to collect less in taxes than it costs to run the system. 2012, the budget year we are in, is the last of the easy years. We are collecting only about $29 million in property taxes, but along with the $35 million in the bank, it is enough so that we expect to be able to send on $10 million to the 2013 budget.

2013 is where the rubber meets the road. Remember, we will have only $10 million from the prior year. To meet our budget of $60 million, we are going to have to gather the rest from the taxpayers. So the Mayor's original proposed budget, sensibly enough, calls for increased millage sufficient to collect taxes of $50 million instead of the prior year's $29 million.

A key point is the following: Even though the Mayor's original budget called for increasing library taxes, it did not call for increasing the library budget. This was a flat budget for the libraries.

After the Mayor's polling mentioned above, in the rush to offer the Commissioners a flat budget, somebody got the idea that the library millage should also be flat. The problem with this is that, for the library system, flat millage does not mean a flat budget. In fact, keeping last year's tax rate means roughly a $20 million dollar cut in the library budget- or about a third of the whole budget. Of course, this is not a flat budget at all- it is a huge cut. For more on what cutting the library budget by a third means for our library system, see this web site.

2. Leadership

A couple of years ago, our School Board looked around and noticed that our schools had enormous capital needs. Aside from the need for new buildings, there was a maintenance backlog- leaky roofs, unusable bathrooms, mold infestations, etc. The School Board did not have money in its operating budget to do all this work. The only way to address the problem would be to borrow money in the bond market, which would have to be paid back with property taxes. On the other hand, it was evident that Miami-Dade voters were not enthusiastic about taxing themselves.

Of course, we know what happened. The School Board bit the bullet and proposed a bond issue, and then they and their superintendent went out and sold it to the voters. This might be said to be an example of true democratic leadership, and politics at its best: identifying a problem, formulating a solution and then persuading the voters to do what needs to be done in order to solve the problem. It is interesting to note that the School Board had been lucky enough to hire as superintendent- an administrative job- an individual who had the skills of a political leader, and who acted as one, even though he was not an elected official. This is evidence for the proposition that not all leaders are elected officials.

Turning to the County, we see evidence for another proposition: that not all elected officials are leaders. Consider first our Commissioners: we have long since grown accustomed to their hyper-local focus on their districts and their lack of vision regarding the interests of the County as a whole. After all, they have neither access to the broader media nor accountability to a broader electorate. It is understandable that they would be inclined to take the voters as they are (in its extreme form, we would call this pandering), rather than try to lead them to where they have not yet been. So "no new taxes" would be their default position.

As for the Mayor, given his County-wide responsibilities, we might have expected him to give some priority to making sure that we maintain a decent level of service for our libraries and Fire Rescue services. Indeed, this was the position he took in his original proposed budget. Moreover, given the resources of the mayoralty, it seems like this should have been an easy case to make to the Commissioners and to the public.

As explained above, the need to increase the millage for the libraries, in particular, was evident more than a year ago. Nor was the need for a millage increase for Fire Rescue services a last-minute surprise. Thus, we might have expected that our Mayor would have been out in the community for the last year or more talking with whoever would listen, enlisting the support of the municipalities, business groups, etc. However, our Mayor did none of this. The sell was never made. The Mayor's original budget including the necessary millage increases, to mix two grim metaphors, was dead on arrival because it was an orphan.

To be fair to the Mayor, it is arguable that the leadership vacuum in County government began with us, the voters. In our disdain for politicians, we have twice in a row elected to the office of mayor an individual who thought of himself, and had proved himself, as an administrator, and did not look or sound like a politician. In fact, this was a selling point for the winning candidate in each case.

 The tragedy here is that voters who have sought refuge from empty political posturing by electing reliable managers have been saddled with elected officials who cannot help them to come to terms with real problems, and that individuals who have demonstrated skills as managers have been elected to positions where those skills are not enough. Managers do not, by some fairy-tale alchemy, become leaders, or even communicators, overnight. Thus, even now, the Mayor infuriates his audiences at the budget hearings by telling them that he is doing his best to work within the available "parameters." Of course, everyone present knows that the "parameters" include the Mayor's failure in the past to lay the political groundwork for his proposed budget, and his refusal in the present to stick up for his budget with the voters and the Commission. As a result, the Mayor's protestations that his hands are tied come across as less than honest: although the Mayor may in fact care deeply about libraries, about animals or about the people whose lives will depend on the response times of our Fire Rescue services, that has not been the story told by his actions.

Is the story really over, as the Mayor would have us believe? Maybe not. The Mayor could, even at this late stage, if he cared enough about the issues at stake, throw a Hail Mary pass. He could apologize for dropping the ball in the past, and do his best to pick up the pieces. We Americans, after all, are a forgiving lot: we respond well to stories of repentance and redemption. Instead, however, the Mayor is so far staying inside his comfort zone, working to paper over the cuts with volunteers, employee concessions, and contributions from outside groups- all comfortable activities for an administrator, rather than a leader, but too little and too late, and not likely to bridge the gaps.

Looking around the packed rooms at the budget hearings, we can see, I believe, absent some miraculous turnaround, the ground troops for the Mayor's opponent in the next election, should the Mayor choose to run again. The more those present listen to the Mayor, it appears, the more they recognize his limitations and the more committed they are to replacing him. All that is missing is for firefighters and their supporters, pet enthusiasts, and library advocates, along with others in the community, to come together as a group and deliver their support to an actual leader. Perhaps such a group, if it came together, might look for a candidate a few blocks north at the School Board headquarters.

Meanwhile, what to do?

1. Learn about the issues. A number of resources are collected here:

2. Contact your Commissioner (I am told that Javier Suarez and Pepe Diaz are the swing votes):

3. Attend a budget hearing, listen to your fellow citizens, make some new friends, and let the Mayor know what you think:

You can read the budget here:

Library is here:

Fire Rescue is here:

Animal Services are here:


On the one hand, everyone likes government services. On the other hand, no one likes to pay taxes. Our Board of County Commissioners recently decided that tax breaks were more important than libraries or Fire Rescue services, among other things. The funny thing is, the tax breaks went mostly to people who did not need them. The situation is analyzed by Terry Murphy, formerly assistant to Commissioner Natacha Seijas (who, even though there were those who did not like her, had her economics straight). Murphy points out that, for every dollar in tax relief that went to homeowners, $2.68 went to other property owners. Moreover, lower-income homeowners benefit from a number of breaks enacted by the state and the county over the years. And even for those homeowners, the incremental taxes necessary to guarantee library and Fire Rescue service are minuscule. (The County could probably more than compensate for the additional taxes by helping low-income homeowners to save energy and reduce their monthly payments to FPL, which just happens to be both a major beneficiary of every reduction in millage, and a major political contributor.)


Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis and commentary. Thank you all for writing and posting. I will share far and wide.

Anonymous said...

The Mayor was right on this. PEOPLE CANNOT AFFORD MORE TAXES.

Employee #251 said...

The current millage is 17 cents per $100 worth of property. Check your bill before issuing a CANNOT AFFORD statement. The past tax dollars alone spent are not going to be wasted resources. Remember, your taxes are not going down one penny but your services are reduced by 2/3 countywide. Trust me, you are really being robbed.

Also, from a Facebook page created by librarians to be able to inform the public what's been happening, I read this:

Another statement of the Mayor that defies logic. This upcoming year the library tax will show a deficit of about $20 million. Thus the only solution is to close libraries and layoff Library personnel. Because Library operations and payroll are solely funded by the Library District Tax, we can not use $$ from the General Fund Tax to bail us out. We can't transfer any $$ or have layoffs come from other departments.

Turn the clock back two years. The County was $409 million short and the Library System [using their reserves] breaks even. So if we were fully funded, why did 17% of the 600 layoffs that year come from the Library Department. I thought we couldn't share. The Mayor can't have it both ways. He used our $$ and our people to bail his part of county government out. These actions. were unethical, unfair, wrong, and possibly ILLEGAL

Can he legally take money or services from one taxing district and distribute them to a second taxing district? He is saying now that he can't bail us out now because why? We were forced to bail him out two years ago.

Anonymous said...

Indeed there can be a shift of funds from one district to another. It happens every day and, in some cases, is a waste of dollars. They are called administrative reimbursements, and this year they are costing independent districts MORE.

See p. 61 here,

These "reimbursements" have been slush funds for the general fund for many years and need to stop. In many cases, the county is merely duplicating what is already done by the independent districts.

In addition, procurement is a complete mess. Fire/Rescue, WASA, Libraries, etc. can all buy goods much cheaper than the county charges them. A few years ago, Fire/Rescue was able to wrestle a little bit of control of their motor fleet from GSA and save money but GSA still siphons funds from their budget.

Funds can move from one fund to another. But it's a one-way street.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the shifting of funds among special account what got the City of MiAmi in trouble with the SEC, recent cheapest filed. Perhaps an investigation is in order by County Inspector General. Or Dept of audit. These questions need to be asked and answered by Mayor Gimenez and his legions of budget assistants at the next town hall meeting.

Anonymous said...

thanks! you are so right about the lack of leadership - and about the lack of understanding of these issues by voters. In a climate where recall efforts are launched partly on the basis of raising taxes, I was surprised the Mayor had the courage to call for increases in Library and Fire District millage. I was not surprised by the immediate reaction of NO MORE TAXES that I heard all around me. If both he and the commissioners had spent some time educating the community (as you are doing here) it would have helped but I do not think the Commission is interested in helping that way. They want to run on flat taxes. Maybe this can be a "teachable moment" when the shouting and blame game stop.

Teddy said...

What people are missing is they could have raised library and fire millage And reduced general fund (UMSA as applicable )

Milagethis is where the Dollars are and where cuts easily could be made. There is a lot of political patronage funding I.E. mom and pops..MDEAT .. ITC.. Pet projects festivals .. Duplicate functions etc ..

Gimemez could have has a blended rate that could have spared libraries and fire and
Funded animal services as per the vote. He would have had to eliminate useless programs and kept the over all rate flat. People pay total tax bill not fire and library separately. So politically Gimenez could have said he kept taxes flat but saved essential services.
Of course he would of had to fight commission on their pet funding. Santiago Leon said it
Correctly lack of leadership.

Gimenez is a glorified third rate manager.

Anonymous said...

Great article and quite enlightening. Thank you Mr. Leon!

Anonymous said...

Outstanding work Mr. Leon, however it is clear that there is a large silent majority (that speak loudly if taxes go up) that would agree with if you if the following is accomplished.

1- The mis-spending at County Hall is reduced and/or under control.

2- The reforms that some commissioners have talked about, is in fact accomplished.

3- Any increase in taxes is accompanied with full explaination of why.....and not just at budget time.

I know may county employees are stuck with the mentality that affects their pockets. But resident are done with pockets being picked.

Here is an idea....instead of giving the residents two options (CUT or RAISE TAXES), how about revising programs and finding new ways of delivering services without picking our pockets.

Do what business does.....REINVENT

Anonymous said...

I pay about $4k in annual property taxes total.
How much would it cost me to keep the library budget flat and sustain the fire dept?

Anonymous said...

Cities should not be able issue bonds unless the problem is due to an absolute emergency. Too often local governments have placed no money into maintaining parks, buildings, vehicles, sewers, bridges and the rest of the infrastructure because they know they can raise and keep that dept financed over 30 years. Miami Beach is a perfect example of this. Watson Island and the Miami Beach convention center would be filled with more condos if it weren't problematic to put residential property on city land.

Anonymous said...

Excellent synopsis. Thank you for the honesty. Finally.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr Leon.
I pay about $120,000 in RE Taxes.

I would like to see Carlos Gimenez be a better manager.
Gimenez should reduce pay and benefits for the 26,000+/- full time employees of the County AND he should reduce headcount. In addition, I would like to see Gimenez honor several of his past campaign promises.

Anonymous said...

For a community that prides and sell itself as the Cultural Arts Center of the Americas, we sure look bad closing our libraries but funding our sports stadiums.

The Miami Herald is now reporting that the Main Library, no longer able to pay rent to the County, has to clear out two floors presumably so new tenants can move in.
But no worries - don't look behind the curtain.
"Raymond Santiago, the library department director, said Monday that while librarians are “weeding” some materials out of the Main Library, they have not been instructed to do away with any collections.

“Nothing is being thrown away,” he said, calling the notion “ludicrous.” “We’re not idiots.”

Read more here:

Anonymous said...

The basement of the library housed a collection of stamp history (philatelic)related items. One of the stamp clubs offered to come in and catalog the information and were turned away. They were important enough that my husband wanted to participate in saving them. What happened to those items?

Chris A said...

This commission and the mayor did an injustice to it citizens by voting for a flat tax. They had an opportunity to vote to individually raise the library and fire mileage rate at the commission meeting and then have debates with the citizens of this county before Sept. 30th, and then keep it the same or lower it if that is what the citizens wanted ( or was best for the county). But instead they were cowards (in my opinion) looked at what will get them re-elected voted to keep a "Flat Tax". I have two kids in Middle school and unfortunately I have to say our library system is badly underfunded! They both have library cards and we use the library system a lot over the summer and during the school year to help with school and summer reading and school projects. However there has been a steady decline in our library system to the point it is hard to find the materials on the selves it the help with school they need! I would hate to see our Fire Rescue system fall into the same category as our libraries! My understanding is for about $.06 a day we could fund the Fire Dept. if my family needed it I think I could find $.06 a day to hopefully save them! The mayor claims he listened to the people... but at the Town Hall meetings none of them have showed up yet that I've heard. There is a supposed "silent majority" if so how were they heard?! Please come out and show your support for our kids, friends and families. It is obvious our County Govt. isn't in tune with its constituents! The "Silent Majority" just means people who are giving money to get these politicians re-elected (again my opinion). Let's be the vocal minority and get these "politicians" out if office, and let them know our voices are more powerful then $$$$!!!

Chris A said...

Sorry about the misspellings or grammatical errors but I typed that on my phone and it automatically corrected what it thought I was saying! If you have questions to what u wrote please ask me to clarify and I will gladly do that.

Anonymous said...

Why can't fire properly manage their budget, live with in their means, cut overtime, manage their staff better, consolidate to reduce expenses? Why is it always threats to citizens with reduced response time?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the fire dept is not included in the general fund. Therefore, they rely solely on revenue generated by the millage. Currently the fire dept. Is understaffed by about 115 sworn positions. An anticipated 40 to 50 sworn firefighters will retire within the next year. It's not that the fire department created that mess in regards to overtime, it's the countys fault by not properly staffing them with enough personell. In regards to reduce expeses, firefighters have been giving concessions for the past 3 years. They simply said enough is enough, and respectfully so. If I recall correctly, the fire department let the county borrow 9 million dollars fora shortage in the general fund a couple of years ago, and they have yet to get that money back when they need it most. . Shame on the mayor

Anonymous said...

What most people in our community don't know is the Fire Dept has had their budget cut every year for 5 years! At the same time 100 Firefighters have retired in those five years but only 44 have been hired, and they just got out of training and hit the trucks two weeks ago.. So if do the math, how can the Fire Department cut back on overtime when they are 100 Firefighters short? The Unions have done a great job helping the County meet their Budget, they have made $20 million in concessions in the past 5 years, pay cuts, NO pay Increases in 5 years, loss of benefits... All to make it work or the public, to save a Fire Department that is Internationally famous! But with our present leadership (Commissioners & Major) units will close, lives will be in danger, and the Miami Dade Fire Department we all love & trust is on the verge of collapse... All over .006 cents per day savings! What business do you know that has not raised it's operating costs in 5 years... Instead what business do you know that has lowered it's operating costs by 20 million in 5 years??? I suggest we have the leaders of this County take a vote, or at least a poll to see how citizens feel about a small tax increase to save their Libraries & their Fire Department! I know I would pay my part to keep those services and save jobs that will be lost!

Anonymous said...

How about looking at efficiency gains? I'm sure there are opportunities to outsource non-core activities. Why, for example, are there employees with County Benefits doing non-core services such as Information Technology? Also, has anyone done a comparison of public payroll vs private payroll for equivalent roles given the recession has depressed wages? I think you'll find that (when cadillac benefits are accounted for) people are OVERPAID. Do what FedEx did and do a 10% across the board salary cut.

Government has GOT to get more efficient instead of going to the taxpayer for more and more. The only way to stave off the bloat is to choke it off. NO MORE TAX INCREASES.

Anonymous said...

I can only speak of what I no to be a definite truth. The county has mismanaged funds for quite some time and has funded projects like the Marlins stadium as it did five years ago.

If the county was able to something like that and have that kind of surplus. Why is it that they are penalizing the library and Fire Rescue departments? Also, I am as much of a Pet lover as the next person, but what is more important? Pets shelters, or Libraries? Pet shelters or Fire Rescue?

Save the Libraries and God bless our Fire Rescue

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr. Leon for a great explanation of this county budget.

Anonymous said...

Ahh... the overtime scam. Point to the newly hired trainees as justification for the need to work overtime. Then point to the overtime as justification for hiring new trainees.

How about reducing the staffing to match national standards? Then there won't be a need to work overtime or hire new trainees.

Insider said...

Miami-Dade county budget fiascoes also occurred under disgraced ex-Manager George Burgess and disgraced ex-Mayor Carlos Alvarez. So what's the common denominator? COUNTY BUDGET DIRECTOR JENNIFER GLAZER-MOON.

Jennifer Glazer-Moon is the same incompetent budget director who ran the Burgess/Alvarez administration into ground. She was the budget director who recommended the infamous tax increase coupled with fat union pay raises in Sept 2010 that led to Alvarez being recalled by an overwhelming margin in 2011. She was also the budget director during the 2006 house of lies housing agency scandal and the budget director responsible for "shoddy oversight" when the feds froze all federal grants to the county transit department in 2011. Glazer-Moon was also the budget director who recommended buying the Marlins a new stadium with taxpayer funds without asking the team to provide the financials that we now know would have showed the Marlins to be very profitable and undeserving of any subsidies.

Amazingly, despite pulling down a $212,365.54 salary last year, Glazer-Moon has no background in finance or accounting (she was an English major in college) and has never gone through a competitive recruitment process since the day she arrived at the county as an intern in 1994. I am still shocked that she wasn’t fired the day Mayor Carlos Gimenez took office. Gimenez kept Glazer-Moon and all of the rest of the incompetent Burgess/Alvarez cronies and broke his promise to reform county government.

Gimenez deserves this budget crisis because of his poor choice of advisers, especially Glazer-Moon. With the same incompetent cast of characters making the county’s budget decisions year after year, don’t expect any improvement in the future.