CIVIC ACTION BULLETIN - COMMENTARY
THE TRAGEDY OF THE MIAMI-DADE COUNTY BUDGET
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.
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:
BY THE WAY, WHO ACTUALLY GETS THOSE PROPERTY TAX CUTS?
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.)