October 20, 2020
Groups want Miami-Dade police budget cut to boost services. Mayor: We’re not Chicago
 
 
By Douglas Hanks
 

Groups calling for shifting police dollars to social services dominated Miami-Dade’s first online budget hearing, meeting a mostly unreceptive audience from a mayor and county commission who stuck with a $9 billion spending plan for 2021 that boosts revenues for law enforcement.

“We are pleading for change,” Kyriaki Tsaganis said during the three-and-a-half hours of public comment by the hundreds of people who signed up to address commissioners virtually. 

“We shouldn’t be funneling people into the criminal justice system and locking them up in cages just because we don’t have the funds ... for things like mental health,” she said. “We have the money, and you guys just aren’t spending it right.”

No commissioner voted against preliminary approval for the parts of Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed budget that include police, corrections, transit and social services. The only dispute came on the ordinance that sets hundreds of fees in Miami-Dade, including water rates, to increase revenues by about 4%. 

It passed by a 7-6 vote, and highlighted a party divide on an officially nonpartisan board.

All the Democrats (Daniella Levine Cava, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Eileen Higgins, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime and Dennis Moss) voted for the ordinance with the fees, and all the Republicans (Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Joe Martinez, Rebeca Sosa, Javier Souto, plus independent Xavier Suarez) voted against it. Bovo and Levine Cava are candidates for the fall election to replace a term-limited Gimenez. 

A final vote on the budget is set for Thursday, Sept. 17, at 5 p.m. The budget includes flat property-tax rates, expanded library hours and less than a 1% boost in hiring for a payroll of about 28,000 people, including more slots for police. 

Though sales taxes are plunging, the budget is mostly insulated from what county administrators say will probably be the main COVID crisis for local government revenues: a soft or declining real estate market in 2021. 

“This year is going to be difficult,” said Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor who oversees the budget. “Next year is going to be even tougher.”

Before the commissioners take their final budget vote on the 17th, the public will have a second chance to address them. 

Thursday’s online turnout — arranged by groups that had analyzed Miami-Dade’s nearly 1,000-page budget plan and held virtual town halls about it — brought stern comments from Gimenez. 

He objected to dozens of speakers making the same demands, and making what he called overly simplistic complaints about the police budget, including $24 million to acquire new police helicopters in 2021 and a $400 million plan for new jails. 

“There’s been a lot of misinformation we’ve been hearing over the last two or three hours,” he said. “Obviously we’ve heard a lot of people who have been scripted.”

He noted Miami-Dade’s jail population has been declining since 2008, thanks in part to the county’s diversion programs for incarceration and an expanded civil-citation ordinance that lets people get tickets for possessing small amounts of marijuana and other minor offenses.

His administration’s $400 million plan to replace old jails with new ones hinges on paying the construction debt with existing operational dollars in Corrections that Gimenez said would only be freed up by staffing savings from modern facilities. 

He also rejected callers’ questioning a $600,000 purchase of software that analyzes social media, which Gimenez said lets police head off threats of violence online before it spills into neighborhoods. 

“That’s why we’re not Chicago,” he said. “As long as I’m the mayor, and hopefully the next mayor, will assure we’re not Chicago.” 

ORGANIZED SPEAKERS

Dream Defenders, Engage Miami and other activist groups organized hundreds of people to sign up to speak at Thursday’s nearly five-hour budget session, the first of two that are part of county approval for a $9 billion spending plan.

After organizing workshops of their own to discuss how Miami-Dade tax dollars should be spent, the groups circulated to participants information how to sign up to speak and bullet points on the groups’ demands. 

Those included $100 million a year into the county’s affordable-housing fund, $3 million on a “sobering center” that could house people who would otherwise go to jail for intoxication; and funding those projects and other boosts to social services by taking away 10% of the police department’s $781 million 2021 budget.

The proposals mirrored the “Defund the Police” movement, which gained steam in the wake of the death of George Floyd during a May arrest in Minneapolis and the nationwide demonstrations that followed. 

Rather than regularly devoting the largest chunk of property taxes to law enforcement — police and jails make up 45% of the county’s general-fund expenses in 2021 — the speakers urged Miami-Dade to divert millions of dollars to mental-health services and incarceration alternatives, and to beef up the state’s public defenders office. 

Speakers also chastised the board for allowing another budget to pass without an aggressive spending plan to address climate change.

Jared Simon mocked the county’s strategy of declaring that almost its entire construction and purchasing budget is lumped into the Gimenez administration’s “resilience efforts.” The 2021 budget says $3.285 billion of the $3.33 billion capital plan contain the “resiliency” leaf emoji — meaning only 2% isn’t part of the resiliency plan. 

“Miami-Dade should be leading the way in creating a new green, de-carbonized economy. It’s humiliating that it is not the case,” Simon said. “It’s difficult not to come away from the budget that the county is much more concerned with the public relations gains of claiming resilience spending.” 

This was Miami-Dade’s first experience with a COVID version of budget season. Usually nonprofits and advocacy groups fill the chambers at the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami to advocate for their spending priorities. 

The virtual version rendered useless the tradition of showing strength in numbers with themed T-shirts or gathering behind a single speaker at the lectern making the group’s key points in two minutes of public comment.

Instead, each speaker had to register for the Zoom proceedings and was able to watch commissioners and administrators participating from home or the office.

While commissioners and Gimenez in past years have been slammed by speakers for chatting to the side or leaving the room, in 2020 the complaints shifted to commissioners checking their phones and turning away from the screens whilepublic comments unfolded. 

No commissioner voiced support for redirecting public-safety dollars, and several said the night’s speakers represented a tiny minority in a county where most residents push more police services. “This conversation about defunding the police is ludicrous,” Bovo said. 

Levine Cava pushed back on criticism of the speakers and the suggestion that groups shouldn’t organize to drive a message at a county budget hearing. “Public participation is precious,” she said. 

Moss said he was heartened by the online turnout, as well as by the demonstrations across Miami-Dade during the summer. “Young people always seem to rise to the occasion,” he said. “When you think all hope is lost, you look around. And there are the young people.”