Apolitical, volunteer advisor team may watch over Miami's budget
By Risa Polansky
A volunteer budget advisory committee is in the works to help guide Miami leaders through today's — and upcoming — tumultuous financial times.
Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff last week announced plans to form the committee immediately, asking for a report and recommendations within 90 days.
Already this fiscal year the city faces a nearly $21 million budget gap, and Mr. Sarnoff fears 2011 will only be tougher.
He warned the rest of the newly seated commission that they're "in for the ride of your life when you get to see what this budget's going to look like."
His idea is that a committee of outside local experts could help brainstorm moneysaving and revenue-generating ideas to help keep the city on solid financial ground.
Mr. Sarnoff said he's looking for professionals "who can understand where we are now, where we're projected to be."
Commissioner Frank Carollo jumped in to point out that the city already has an audit and a finance committee.
"I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, and you know I'll go along with this, but we do have committees that are in place… that could definitely chime in and so forth," he said.
But Mr. Sarnoff said he sees value in an "apolitical" advisory group.
So does Merrett Stierheim, former city manager, Miami-Dade County manager and schools superintendent.
He has publicly recommended an outside advisory committee to help navigate today's crisis and plan for the city's financial future.
"Somebody's got to be the bad guy," Mr. Stierheim said in an interview Monday. "It helps to a certain extent to depoliticize or to take political pressure off the commission and the mayor if a highly respected group of professionals, pro bono… evaluates and makes recommendations to enhance the fiscal health of the city."
Mr. Stierheim left his post as city manager in 1996, the year Miami declared a financial emergency and submitted to a governor-appointed oversight board.
The former manager says he pushed for the city to avoid such a situation at the time, even presenting a strategic financial recovery plan on his last day of work.
Fast forward 14 years, and again "it's going to be a tough bullet to bite, but at the end of the day, something's got to happen. And if it doesn't happen either this year or maybe next, the city's going to be in real serious trouble," he said. "I don't want to see another oversight board. I didn't want to see one back in 1996."
One major way to help stabilize finances, Mr. Stierheim suggested: find recurring savings or recurring revenue streams rather than one-time fixes.
"Recurring is a big theme here," he said. "You don't solve your problem by selling an asset.… Once you sell it, it's gone, but the problem, the basic problem, remains, because these shortfalls can come every year."
He called Mr. Sarnoff's move to form an advisory committee "encouraging" and said the group's goal should be "fiscal responsibility and stability for the city, and accountability."
To get there, city lawmakers are leaning on the administration to provide the soon-to-convene group with all the information it would need to make an accurate assessment and recommendations.
It's already hard enough for the commission to get the latest figures, Mr. Carollo said at last week's meeting, holding up November numbers as the administration gave a December update.
"No matter how good the [new advisory] committee is, the bottom line is if the commissioners don't even get the information… then what are we doing?" he asked.
Mr. Sarnoff directed administrators to provide the committee with the latest and most detailed numbers, even unaudited, to ensure members have the foundation to write a well-informed report.
The committee can meet as often as it sees fit, he said, and he and Mayor Tomás Regalado plan to be there.
Mr. Sarnoff came armed with a list of potential appointees, including attorney James Cassel; Arturo Ross, who Mr. Sarnoff called an expert in union and pension issues; and firefighter Tom Gabriel.
Other names commissioners suggested include accountants Tony Argiz and Fausto Alvarez, as well as AutoNation director and former Wachovia executive Carlos Migoya.