Well, what do you know? Pushed into a corner by a majority of Miami-Dade County commissioners and an army of activists and angry residents to restore the funding cuts he proposed for transit services (bus routes and Metrorail hours), Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez suddenly found at least $16.2 million we didn’t have before.
More found money!
Okay, it’s not like, “Oh, there it is! I was wondering where I put those $16 million!” It’s not like he’s a street magician making quarters appear out of thin air. Although sometimes it seems that way, don’t it? That’s because we’ve become accustomed to Gimenez just opening a drawer full of money whenever he is forced to go look for it. We shouldn’t be too shocked. This always happens at budget crunchtime. In fact, Ladra is only surprised it’s a measley $16 million and predicts that figure could rise as he opens more hidden drawers and trap doors on the 29th floor at County Hall. Look for good news (read: more bait and switch) at Thursday’s budget hearing.
I mean, wasn’t it a $200 million shortfall in 2014 when Gimenez first threatened to fire 700 county workers, including 255 police officers, then it was 130, then 100, then 70 and then — abracadabra — none! The money was found to save all the police jobs. Just as it was found to save the libraries the year before and stop the fire station brownouts the year before that. Was it last year he found $5 million out of the blue to fund The Underline? Or was that the year before? It all blurs togegther, which Ladra thinks is by design (and, wait, is that money parked somewhere? Or was it spent? If so, on what?).
This year, the bait and switch is with — what else? — transit, the obsession du jour. Gimenez and, by extension, the county budget director, Jennifer Moon, were hard pressed to find the $19 million that had been cut from the transit budget after the first budget hearing earlier this month and dozens of people spoke about the hardship this would cause transit-dependant workers. A majority of commissioners — in a rare but welcome momentary reunion with their respective spines — refused to pass the budget. Commissioner Xavier Suarez suggested dipping into the reserves to cover the transit cuts, but before that could happen, Commissioner Jean Monestime changed his vote and the budget passed 7-6. But staying with Suarez in dissent were Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan, Daniella Levine Cava and Joe Martinez.
Some said they would vote against it again at Thursday (Sept. 28) meeting if the transit cuts were not addressed. Or even switch their vote. “Yes, for now,” said Chairman Esteban “Stevie” Bovo. I mean, how could they be taken seriously about the SMART plan and expanding mass transit if they were cutting services wholesale?
“We do have a lot of money. We just don’t allocate it properly,” Suarez said.
And, on Wednesday, the mayor proved him right.
“At the first budget hearing, the board made it clear that your priority for funding was public transportation. I share your opinion that in order to be a truly resilient community now and in the future, we must solve our mobility issues,” the mayor said, and suuuure he shares their opinion noooow.
Gimenez found $2.6 million by adding more limited holiday schedule dates to Metrorail and another $4.4 million by cancelling four bus routes that overlapped with free trolleys and municipal circulators. Really? How many years have we been wasting those $4.4 mil? He also “redirected” about $5.5 million in People’s Transportation Plan funds, just when we are supposed to start weaning ourselves off those funds (futher “redirecting” $6 million in road impact fees to replace it), and saved another unexplained $900,000 in overhead. Just like that. Snap!
And voila! You have $13 million for transit.
In his memo to commissioners, Gimenez also laid out additional savings of at least $3.2 million he found in “additional carryover,” whatever that is, since the last budget hearing and which he has applied to the commissioners’ wishlist — including $200,000 for an additional doctor to perform spay and neuter operations at the animal shelter (which doesn’t seem like the best use of funding), $500,000 for an additional police cadet class, $340,000 to cut the grass on medians 17 times a year (current budgeting), $250,000 for canopy replacement and $270,000 for 900 more hours of tutoring at select libraries. Another $1 million was found to practically double the Hurricane Irma reserves (and the commission will be briefed at 1 p.m. on clean up and other recovery efforts).
“The idea that we were headed into approval of a budget and now, lo and behold, $13 million, $14 million, $15 million appear out of nowhere all of a sudden,” Suarez said in a telephone interview after Wednesday’s government operations committee meeting and you could practically see him shaking his head through the phone waves. He also said that he hopes the mayor can look a little harder and find more funds now for housing and capital projects, too.
Hopefully, the other commissioners will be as unsatisfied with this bait and switch and see it for the mismanagement and evidence of ineptitude that it truly is. Because if a reluctant and petulant mayor found $16 million in a week, how much is really padding the budget that a more motivated individual might find?
And what does this really tell us?
It tells us that there is overlap in functions and services — you think trolleys and buses are the only example of that? — which are also wasting resources we need for other things like full-time park employees and recreational programs and a civilian oversight board for police and compliance officers to investigate possible violations of the human rights ordinance.
It tells us that we should have zero confidence in the budget that Gimenez produces and the figures he and Moon provide to the commission. After all, they both presented a Doom’s Day austere budget and said that there was no money to be found for anything else — and then, bingo, here’s $16 million.
And it tells us that former Commissioner Juan Zapata was right when he kept insisting, like forever, that the commission should have its own budget director.
“It’s the same story every year,” Zap told Ladra Wednesday. “Absolutely the county commission neeeds their own budget director and staff. I advocated and filed legislation to push for this for years. Budget staff would misinform my colleages and purposely sabotage my efforts.
“The current process allows for no checks and balances or accountability to taxpayer dollars. It’s a joke and in desperate need for reform,” Zapata said. “If the commission doesn’t take steps to bring about change, citizens should start a petition drive to place the issue on the ballot.”
Why wait? Ladra smells a passion project. And if the people at New Florida Majority or Engage Miami really want to make a permanent and significant difference, here’s something palpable.
The second and final public hearing on the mayor’s proposed $7.2 billion budget begins at 5 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 28) at County Hall, 111 NW First Street, and will be broadcast live on channel 77 and online at the county website.