Dire warnings as Miami-Dade County adds to Children's Museum funds
By Risa Polansky
Without a tax-rate hike next fiscal year, Miami-Dade could lose all parks programs and see departmental budgets cut as much as 25%, County Manager George Burgess warned commissioners last week as they approved an unbudgeted $750,000 payout to the Miami Children's Museum and considered allowing Sweetwater to annex the Dolphin Mall area.
The county faces a $420 million gap between its general fund and fire district in fiscal 2011, which begins Oct. 1.
"To be able to close that gap you have very few alternatives," the manager told commissioners. "To be prepared for what we might have to do on the cost side if we are not able to adjust revenues in any way whatsoever, we've asked all of our departments outside of public safety to submit budgets that are as much as 25% below the current funding. The public safety area was about 10% below, and the kind of position impacts across the entire workforce including public safety — they're serious. They're a real problem."
As for parks — something commissioners considered in discussing the children's museum funding, as they both relate to kids — "you're looking at eliminating all programs entirely," Mr. Burgess said, as well as potentially closing facilities such as restrooms and recreation centers.
With that in mind, he advised against amending this year's budget to hand the children's museum the $750,000 it's been fighting for since last year.
Despite the dire warnings, 10 of 13 commissioners agreed to send the money the museum's way to the delight of a packed house full of children, parents and advocates who have lobbied hard for months.
The dais was tense before the vote as commissioners talked numbers.
Vocal millage-raise supporter Katy Sorenson warned fellow lawmakers "if we continue to decrease the amount of funds the county takes in [by leaving the tax rate flat as property values fall], our services and programs will continue to diminish and disappear and our choices will continue to be like this one," she said, referring to the museum payout. "Unfortunately, we just can't afford this."
Commissioner Natacha Seijas later made a reference to "preaching," and Sally Heyman also took a shot at the admonition.
"While we can all be very eloquent to the troubles this county is going through and will go through, we also can be the champions of children," she said.
But "I can't pit one group of children against another," Audrey Edmonson protested, pointing to already diminished parks programs and the potential for further cuts.
When she sees the tax rate go up, she said, "then I can turn around and support it [the children's museum funding]. Otherwise I can't."
Barbara Jordan took a similar stance.
But Bruno Barreiro, behind the funding push, pointed out that the $750,000 for the museum is coming from this year's budget.
When it comes to fiscal 2011, he said, "I have a very clear and open mind" — apparently referring to considering a tax-rate hike.
Commissioners had a similar discussion in considering allowing the City of Sweetwater to go to the voters in hopes of annexing county land that encompasses Dolphin Mall — something, like the children's museum payout, the administration spoke out against amid plummeting property values and a severe budget crunch.
"We see this as an area that's not going to do anything but increase in value, which puts money on the [tax] roll," Manager Burgess said. "We don't believe this is the right time to be entertaining annexations in general, and this one in particular."
But in defense of Sweetwater, one of the county's poorest municipalities, "this is not greed, this is need," Commissioner Seijas said.
Agreed Javier Souto, "I don't like poor cities. Poor cities bring us more problems and that usually spreads to other areas. Whatever I can do to make a poor little city stronger and better, I'll try to do that."
An item directing the county attorney to prepare the proper annexation legislation ended up passing, but not without protest from a handful of commissioners.
It's another thing the county can't afford, Ms. Sorenson said.
Agreed Chairman Dennis Moss, "I cannot support it based upon our current financial situation."
Also, he said, "with some vision in that area, some leadership on the part of government, some leadership on the part of the development community, we have the potential there to create a regional shopping area, industrial area, that could really rival Sawgrass Mills" and create an "unthinkable" tax base.
As for next year's budget, a proposal is due by mid-July.