The Miami Herald: Miami-Dade commissioners sign off on county budget, spend more time talking about Jackson hospital

The Miami Herald

By Patricia Mazzei and Charles Rabin

Miami-Dade commissioners settled on a budget Thursday night that slightly lowers the property-tax rate for 2012-13, maintains funding for most community organizations and does away with a healthcare concession imposed earlier this year on county employees.There were few disagreements among commissioners, or changes to the spending plan Mayor Carlos Gimenez proposed in July. Only 27 people spoke at the budget hearing, raising relatively minor concerns with the budget, compared with tumultuous hearings of years past that ran into the wee morning hours.And yet, the evening was not all smooth sailing.The five-hour hearing, which began at 5 p.m., was hijacked for 2½ hours by a discussion on the Jackson Health System’s plan to explore outsourcing emergency-room services at the public hospital.Commissioners acknowledged they could do little about Jackson’s plan, short of banning them from using any of the health system’s budget toward “privatization.” Commissioner Barbara Jordan made a motion to do just that, after the public hearing ended at around 7 p.m.That launched the lengthy debate about Jackson’s future, with a majority of commissioners telling Jackson CEO Carlos Migoya that they oppose any efforts to turn over emergency room services to a private provider.

“You’re making Jackson just a shell, with private entities inside, instead of what it was designed to be: the hospital for the people,” Jordan said.

Migoya, standing at the podium with an injured arm in a sling, tried to deflect the punches.

“We are not looking to sell any pieces of Jackson,” he said.

Earlier, a series of speakers, including a Jackson doctor, a social worker and Martha Baker, president of SEIU Local 1991, which represents Jackson nurses and doctors, urged the board to oppose any outsourcing.

Most commissioners did so, but several were wary of using the budget as a way to stop a decision made by Jackson’s financial recovery board.

In the end, Jordan withdrew her motion. Commissioners said they would meet with Jackson’s financial recovery board to discuss the matter further next month.

At one point during the Jackson discussion, several commissioners ducked into the private room behind the dais and emerged carrying ice-cream cones, which they ate on the dais.

Around 9:30 p.m., the commission began voting to approve the budget and the slightly lower property-tax rate of $9.55 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value — a 2 percent decrease from last year. In an unincorporated neighborhood like Kendall, the owner of a $250,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay about $38 less in county taxes, which represent only a portion of the total tax bill.

However, if a property’s value rose more than the nearly 2 percent countywide average, a homeowner could see a slight increase in county taxes.

Miami-Dade has posted a “tax increase” notice, as required by state law, because it will take in more in total tax revenues than last year, thanks to the uptick in property values. Chairman Joe Martinez and Commissioner Bruno Barreiro voted against the tax rate. The two have decried the rate as an increase in the past.

The vote on how the $5.9 billion budget would be spent was approved 11-1, with Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jordan and Commissioners Lynda Bell, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Sally Heyman, Jean Monestime, Rebeca Sosa, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez voting in favor. Martinez voted against. Commissioner Dennis Moss was absent for the vote.

“Mr. Mayor, I really like the budget,” Diaz said.

Gimenez’s budget held flat more than $20 million in funding for community-based organizations, which have in the past lined up for hours at County Hall to ask for more funding. There are no layoffs — though there is a net reduction of 602 positions — and a potential fight over a healthcare concession imposed on employees earlier this year was averted after Gimenez set aside $23 million to do away with the giveback.

Once unions approve the change, the county’s nearly 26,000 employees will no longer be required to contribute an additional 4 percent of their base pay toward healthcare costs. They already put 5 percent of their pay toward healthcare. Gimenez’s administration is still working with unions to redesign employees’ health-insurance plans to avoid a 20-percent hike in dependent premiums.

Usually feisty Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera struck an unusually hopeful tone and seemed to reach a détente with the mayor.

“We’re making headway, and that’s a positive thing,” Rivera said of the ongoing health-insurance negotiations.The budget provides funding to recruit new firefighters and hire at least two new classes of police officers. Sixty vacant, non-sworn police positions will be eliminated, though Gimenez has said street patrols will not be affected.

The last vote was cast at 10:15 p.m. — much earlier than in recent years.

Jennifer Moon, the county budget director, had few questions to answer, after spending the last week updating commissioners on budget changes. For example, the administration found money to restore some of the funding for a school-readiness program for children that would otherwise have taken a bigger cut following the loss of a state grant. The county will also assign a new worker in its economic development division to temporarily assist investigators handling a backlog of wage-theft complaints.

Monestime, who voted for the budget, lamented “systemic neglect” in his largely unincorporated, northeast Miami-Dade district. He pointed to unpaved roads, illegal dumping and little parks staffing.

Heyman applauded the mayor for explaining in a memo to commissioners how community-based organizations that receive county funding are monitored. Still, she noted that with Miami-Dade spending more than $20 million a year on the groups, most of the information received about how the groups spend money comes from the groups themselves and not an independent auditor.

“We lack a clear understanding of the level of service,” she said.

Bovo also hammered on the perceived lack of oversight, noting that the county pays for more than half the budget of more than 30 organizations. He asked for a closer look in the future.

“They literally become an extension of our government,” he said.

© 2012 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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