County commissioners champion low-profile issues in budget battle
By Wayne Tompkins
While Miami-Dade commissioners fight to spare funding for high-profile social services, parks, community groups and cultural affairs grants from Mayor Carlos Alvarez's budget axe, a number of lesser-known issues and causes also have advocates on the commission.
Tree replacement, "smart" traffic signals and programs to reduce child obesity are among the issues commissioners have mentioned they would like to keep funded at current or higher levels, in a series of memos stating their individual positions on the mayor's $225 million in proposed cuts.
The first hearing on the budget begins Sept. 6, with a drawn-out fight expected over the first county budget submitted since the strong mayor government went into effect in January and the state Legislature ordered property tax cuts this spring. The first skirmish occurred earlier this month when Mr. Alvarez accused commissioners of treating his staff abusively and ordered those employees not to attend commission hearings.
While commissioners are beating drums to restore funding to well-known programs like HeadStart, more esoteric items also are on the table, such as Katy Sorenson's push to restore funding for cleaning storm drains, tree replacement and mowing.
"As a tourism-based economy, it is imperative that we maintain an attractive community that… is appealing to our visitors," she said. "Money spent on parks programs is money not needed to address juvenile delinquency and health-related issues such as obesity."
Like Ms. Sorenson, trees also are on Joe Martinez's list of budget priorities. He points out that the county's tree canopy has suffered in recent years due to hurricanes and citrus canker and says now is not the time to make cuts in that area.
"The county currently has a 10% tree canopy, whereas most areas have a 33.4% tree canopy," he said.
Mr. Martinez also wants to protect and, if possible, accelerate the Advanced Traffic Management System being developed for the county's 2,650 traffic signals. Moving the completion date up a year to 2008 "will bring noticeable relief to those that commute… on a daily basis."
Rebeca Sosa agreed that programs to reduce traffic congestion should be spared, noting that police and fire response times have "dramatically" increased.
"We must continue to look at any and all innovative programs which allow for significant reductions in response time," Ms. Sosa said.
She is also fighting to preserve the county's boot camp for juvenile offenders, a target of the mayor's budget cuts.
"This program has had an incredible impact on the reduction of the recidivism rate in our corrections system," she said.
Audrey Edmonson joined with Dennis Moss is opposing funding cuts for the small business Mom and Pop program, which she described as "vital to the economic development in the county and which has proven successful countywide." The program offers up to $5,000 in grants for small businesses in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and provides technical assistance.
While Ms. Sosa has suggested hitting up the county's $70 million in cash reserves to re-fund some programs, some commissioners have suggested ways to save money.
Javier Souto, for example, questioned why the mayor is proposing a $2 million increase for jail inmate programs, while "eliminating jobs to law-abiding county employees."
He said more than $10 million in programs for the corrections budget could be deferred or funded through bond programs.
Mr. Souto also questioned why $1.8 million was proposed for design and development of a Microsoft Windows-based tax system. "If this expenditure was not important enough to fund over the past three years, when the county had more than ample funds, why… this year?"
Ms. Sosa said savings could be found by reducing the take-home car fleet for county employees, saying she was "very disturbed by the large amount of county vehicles that travel out-of-county at a time when fuel costs, insurance and depreciation of vehicles are at a premium."
Natacha Seijas suggested combining the planning and zoning divisions with existing departments. "I recommend we establish a unified Planning and Economic Development Department," she said.
Memos ranged from Mr. Souto's 31-page screed to Mr. Moss's succinct one-page list.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez submitted arguably the most cerebral memo, saying commissioners need "to clearly define and state to the administration our guiding principles and priorities."
Among his own guiding principles are an emphasis on lowering taxes by cutting government waste, helping the elderly and the young and "putting people to work."