Miami Children's Museum vies with shaky Miami-Dade County budget for funds
By Risa Polansky
The quest for funding for the Miami Children's Museum during a major county budget crunch continues.
Lengthy and heated discussion in a county commission committee Monday turned to policy and budget issues — including talk of raising tax rates — and didn't resolve the museum issue.
It seems the funding question is headed to the full commission for a final call.
Commissioners in October at Bruno Barreiro's direction sent administrators on a hunt for $750,000 outside of the general fund to funnel to the museum, which has seen donations and governmental grants decline.
The answer came in a letter from County Manager George Burgess to children's museum board President Jeff Berkowitz earlier this year.
"There are simply no other funding resources available," Mr. Burgess wrote, noting that the county has put more than $7.5 million into the museum over five years.
Mr. Barreiro then took matters into his own hands, sponsoring legislation that would grant to the museum $750,000 from a recaptured $4.5 million in unspent funds meant for community-based organizations.
Three commissioners jumped in to co-sponsor the move: Sally Heyman, Natacha Seijas and Audrey Edmonson.
"When we didn't hear anything, we put this forward," Mr. Barreiro said Monday.
But the extra millions have already been spoken for as part of the administration's strategy to fill a $119.5 million gap in this year's budget caused by overspending on salaries with union contracts outstanding.
The administration says rerouting $750,000 to the museum would carve a new hole in the budget.
That hasn't deterred Mr. Barreiro.
He has pointed out that commissioners requested funding for the museum in October, months before the administration found the extra community organization money.
Monday, he called the fact that the administration controls the agenda a "policy issue."
The museum board's president, Mr. Berkowitz, with a crowd of supporters behind him, made the same point in pleading for the funding.
The administration "ignored that clear commission directive" to find funding and wrote there was none via letter, he said.
And later, Mr. Berkowitz said, "miracle of miracles," the county found the $4.5 million in unexpended cultural grants and made other plans for it.
"The museum has been severely underfunded by Dade County for years," he said, adding that the museum gets 82 cents in funding per visitor, while the Miami Art Museum gets $27.
"The gross inequity must be corrected," Mr. Berkowitz said.
That's Mr. Barreiro's aim.
"This [funding] item I believe puts into practice what we all believe is to recognize the museum, the children's museum, as a major institution and provide them the adequate funding that they need to continue to operate and to give quality service to the children of this county," he said.
But it's not that simple, Commissioner Katy Sorenson said.
"It's a fiscal issue," she said.
The commission's decision last year to cut funding rather than raise millage rates to support services and programs, she said, led to that result.
With budget season approaching, Ms. Sorenson urged the crowd that showed up to support the museum to "let your commissioners know that you're willing to pay for these services."
Commissioner Barbara Jordan said the same.
The commission has to recognize that many programs and institutions are important and deserve resources and that "there's not enough resources here" without generating more revenue, she said. "We cannot continue to hold the line and expect to fund everything that's out there."
She added, though, that Mr. Barreiro had a point when it came to the policy and timing issues.
Committee Chair Javier Souto agreed "there's good arguments on both sides" and encouraged the committee, with only four members on the dais, to take the museum issue to the full 13-member commission for a decision.
It looks like that's where it's headed.
The committee voted to defer the museum funding item.
Meanwhile, the full commission must also vote on a budget adjustment that includes the administration's plan to distribute the found $4.5 million.
It appears Mr. Barreiro will try to rally commissioners to amend it to include the children's museum.
That vote is scheduled for June 3.