First, there was a $208 million shortfall in the Miami-Dade budget. Then it was $200 million. Then, if I recall correctly, it fell to $160 million. Then it was $90 million. Then it was $75 million.
Now, the shortfall in the general fund of the budget — which is going to be presented Tuesday (more on that later) — has been $64 million for almost a week!
Have we finally hit the real number? Because we went from $208 million on May 21 to less than a third of that in a little more than a month. Can’t we keep it rolling in that direction? Maybe we could even have a surplus by October.
Some people say that these are good news steps in the right direction, a sign that Budget Director Jennifer Glazer Moon and her staff — as well as department directors looking for savings under every rock — are doing a bang-up job. Moon herself seems hurt by Ladra’s jaded cynicism on the budget. Both Moon and Michael Hernandez, the mayor’s chief spokesman, say that this is what naturally happens in the budget preparation process as they identify savings and get adjusted ad valorem tax revenue projections — which came in about $50 million more than expected.
Or maybe it’s an extra $60 million. Or $70 million.
“Tomorrow, it could be less,” Moon told me, explaining that the budget is, indeed, a moving target. “This stuff changes because there’s 1,000 moving parts and we’re trying to make them work all at the same time.”
One of those moving parts was the review of contractual obligations, like inter-local agreements with other cities. One such agreement to fund the convention center district in Miami Beach was restructured to save $18 million this year. Of course, we’re going to pay more in years to come — apparently the mayor has gotten into a habit of passing the buck — but Moon said that that particular inter-local agreement was definitely going to be extended anyway, so there’s no harm (more on that later).
She also said that she was going to use every dollar the county can save to “buy back police officers.” Of course, her heart is in the right place: She is married to a county cop. “Every dollar of general fund money I find now, I’m taking back to the police department.”
That would be to save more police jobs. The county has already gone from a proposal of 450 police layoffs to 255 as the hole in the police department shrunk from $42 million to $27 million.
But labor leaders feel they have been forced to negotiate under a cloud of bad numbers that keep changing. They were told they had to cut salaries by 10 percent based on the old numbers we now know were bogus. Now, it’s cut healthcare benefits by 15% — based on what numbers? Ladra has asked what the cuts mean in real dollars, but apparently, that information is difficult to nail down. Bottom line: Workers were told that they had to make sacrifices and lose benefits based on those old, now bogus numbers. What are they supposed to think now?
And workers aren’t the only ones scratching their heads. Commissioner Juan Zapata spoke to Ladra about the dropping shortfall last week.
“There’s no rhyme or reason the way we do things sometimes,” Zapata said. “That fascinates me, how we went from $208 million to $75 million. All of a sudden. Because money appeared. Well, either we’re not being truthful or we are not being responsible in our projections. It’s incredibly frustrating. There’s no explanation.
“The curious thing is how do these things happen? How are you able to identify those $130 million and why couldn’t you identify it before,” Zapata asked, adding that he is not so sure that restructuring inter-local agreements is the way to go.
“We keep kicking the can down the road. And if this is the best option, why does the administration wait ’til the last minute to do these things. You don’t think they knew about this before?” Zapata laughs, but it’s the oh-shit laugh, not the that’s-so-funny laugh.
“We can’t afford to be living on this short-term band-aid existence just hoping that one day you hit the lottery,” Zapata said.
Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera said that the $64 million number isn’t even new. Ladra couldn’t confirm it, but Rivera said that it is the exact same figure Gimenez used months ago — before it ballooned up to $208 mil — with the Miami Herald editorial board.
“How funny he used that same number,” Rivera told Ladra, meaning funny weird, not funny ha ha.
And, he said, it’s not just the numbers in the shortfall. Mayor Gimenez cries wolf about everything, Rivera insists.
“He told us years ago and privately that we were going to have to eat a shit sandwich. Publicly he called it a big, bad pill. If we swallowed the big, bad pill, we’d be okay. So, we did,” Rivera said about the 9 percent that workers gave to a “general health care trust fund” (including the 5% they got back earlier this year) and which we later learned was really for the general fund. It also applies to other concessions in benefits that were set to “snap back” this year, but which the mayor wants to continue to withhold.
“This is the very thing he negotiated with us. That’s what the forecasts said. That’s what was projected. That was the promise of the big, bad pill,” Rivera explained. “Now he wants to force another pill down our throats for the fifth time and my members are saying enough is enough.
“Why would we believe anything he says?”
Rivera is the loudest of the labor leaders, but he is by no means alone. Other union officials say the mayor’s hardline while the budget was still moving gives them little confidence.
“The bottom line is you don’t come to the table with bogus numbers,” said Emilio Azoy, president of the union that represents 1,800 water and sewer employees. “You come with the truth and work on that.”
“It’s frustrating,” said Andy Madtes, president of the general employees AFSCME, the largest union in the county. “Here we’re trying to put together the best comprehensive proposal we can, and every week, the target number keeps dropping. That’s good, because at least it’s not going in the opposite direction.”
But he said it was also difficult to get workers to agree to extended concessions when they keep hearing about money found here and there — and they keep hearing about it in the news, instead of through the union leadership. In fact, most of the county employees learned of last week’s new proposal — swapping the planned salary cut for benefits cuts, instead — through a Miami Herald story.
“Employees are very skeptical at the fact that the administration is claiming that they keep finding money,” Madtes told Ladra. “And I haven’t seen anything that quantifies those numbers. So they don’t want to hear about any concessions until they know what the real numbers are.”
Those “real numbers” are supposed to be made public Tuesday, when the mayor presents his final budget. Final being fluid, probably. You know, it being 1,000 moving parts and all.
But Ladra’s can’t help but smell something weird going on here. I mean, if they found $15 million for the police department and $100 million in the rest of the budget, if they found $18 million in one of dozens if not hundreds of inter local agreements, who’s to say they can’t “find” $64 mil more? Or — dare we dream? — $74 million? Or $85 million? Or $100 million?
Maybe we could be swimming in reserves if the pendulum keeps swinging that way.