Miami-Dade commissioners meeting but still tentative in making cuts as budget close nears
By Risa Polansky
Racing against the clock and facing now a budget gap $17 million wider than expected, Miami-Dade commissioners are huddling up in impromptu meetings this week — and still struggling to move beyond talk of priorities to actual cutting.
At a marathon meeting last week the commission voted to keep the countywide tax rate flat, opting to cut more from the budget rather than generate added property tax revenue.
With a small tax increase, Mayor Carlos Alvarez in July proposed a budget with $427 million in cuts.
In tossing the tax hike idea, the commission must now cut $444 million from the $7.5 billion-plus budget.
After voting on the tax rate in the wee hours Friday morning, they decided later that day to hold a meeting Tuesday to get started.
And they decided at that meeting after nearly four hours of discussion to call another for today (9/10) to keep working.
They're to meet again Friday and potentially Monday to continue talking budget.
A regular commission meeting is set for Tuesday, Sept. 15, with the final public budget hearing set for Sept. 17.
By law, the commission must approve a budget during that meeting.
By the end of their first spur-of-the-moment meeting this week, they still had a way to go.
Commissioners spent some of the four hours Tuesday reiterating priorities they've made clear since first seeing the budget in July, such as restoring Mayor Alvarez's proposed cuts to social services.
Some shared more detailed lists of their own cutting ideas.
Commissioners Carlos Gimenez, Joe Martinez and Javier Souto have issued written proposals.
That practice must continue, said Commissioner Katy Sorenson, chair of the county's Budget, Planning and Sustainability Committee.
"We're here to engage in a math exercise, not just a wish list."
She's pushed that policy from the beginning.
But some commissioners say they've found it tough to attach numbers to their ideas.
They created the Office of the Commission Auditor in 2002 "to provide support and professional analysis of the policy, service, budgetary and operational issues," the office Web site says.
Its staff of certified public accountants and legislative analysts are meant to review budget issues and commission action.
The auditor last week issued a "savings summary" based on commissioners' money-saving ideas.
Some of the numbers in it came from county budget staffers.
The budget office must verify the ones that didn't.
That memo hasn't been audited, and some numbers are off, budget chief Jennifer Glazer-Moon told commissioners Tuesday, though she said the offices are working together to correct those.
Commissioners José "Pepe" Diaz and Bruno Barreiro each suggested the commission should have its own budget office to avoid some of the roadblocks hit during this budget process, which has been rocky from the get-go.
The state of the real estate market meant property tax valuations came late.
Which meant the proposed budget came late.
Which meant the proposed tax-rate ceiling came late.
A commission budget office couldn't have avoided those recessionary pitfalls.
But "I don't want this problem next year," which is expected to be tougher than this, Mr. Diaz said.
Mr. Barreiro said he's been calling for a commission budget office for years.
And this year, he said, policymakers should view the budget process as building a budget, not adjusting Mayor Alvarez's.
"I don't think [we're] buying back [proposed cuts], I think were dealing with a new budget," he said. "I don't want it to be perceived that were un-funding something and funding something else. In reality, this should be our budget built from scratch."
He came to Tuesday's meetings armed with ideas for cuts — including from the auditor's office.
"Either we do a budget and we take control of this, or we don't do it and we work off the numbers the administration gives us," he said.
The county has separate departments for environmental management, Americans with Disabilities Act coordination and procurement, Mr. Barreiro noted.
Generally state and federal agencies handle environmental issues, building departments handle disabilities act compliance and various departments oversee procurement for items and projects that pertain to them, he said — opportunities for the county to cut.
Commissioner Sosa requested from the administration in time for today's planned meeting scenarios restoring 70% and 75% to some of the services Mr. Alvarez proposed killing, including elderly meals, mom-and-pop business grants, parks and the county's anti-venom unit.
She asked to see numbers reflecting 5% cuts nearly across the board in county departments, as well as cuts to executive benefits packages, travel, consultants, outside legal services and other areas.
Moving past this point during final meetings is crucial, Commissioner Barbara Jordan said.
"I think we have come full circle in terms of priorities…but costing out what that list will cost is absolutely essential based on what all of us have put on the record, and then determining where we're going to get additional funds if we're going to put those things back and having some sort of voting process on what has been vetted so far and the ramifications of what that means," she said.
Commission Chair Dennis Moss asked budget and auditor staffers conference to iron out the numbers attached to commissioners' priorities before today's planned meeting.
"Try to come to the commission with as many items vetted and validated as possible," he said. "We've got to start tying down some real numbers here."
Meetings could continue past today's.
"We really need to have both sides of the ledger," budget committee Chair Ms. Sorenson said. "And I don't see how we can be finished with that on Thursday."