Special to South Florida Times
OPA-LOCKA — Anxious black leaders faced down the Miami-Dade County mayor over his proposed budget and vision for their community at a town hall meeting Monday.
Rather than specific answers from Mayor Carlos Gimenez, they got what they considered vague remarks that any plan for the county will be tailored for the benefit of all residents.
At one point, Gimenez angered the pastor of the host church during an exchange over President Barack Obama’s $447 billion American Jobs Act.
Asked to comment on the Obama proposal, Gimenez said, “I would love to do that but I’d also have to figure what's going to happen with the debt of the United States of America and that’s a problem for me.”
A nearly half trillion dollar plan for jobs, Gimenez said, “there is another side to it: Nothing comes free. How are we going to pay for it? I need to be further educated on the plan itself.”
Bishop Victor T. Curry, head of New Birth Baptist Church Cathedral of Faith International in Opa-locka, said if Obama wants to put millions of dollars in the community to help people with employment, “your response is, ‘I’m going to look at the damn budget?’”
Gimenez responded that any other politician “will sit in here and will tell you exactly what you want to hear and then leave … I have been told what I believe to be the truth.”
Attendees at the packed meeting earlier heard Curry, who is also president of the NAACP Miami-Dade Branch, tell the mayor that black Miami-Dade residents want the county “working for us.”
“I want to listen intently to find out where, in [Gimenez’s] vision, African Americans fit in. Will we be a part of his plan?” Curry said.
The Miami area is ranked among the worst cities in the country in terms of economic difficulties, with unemployment rates at 12.5 percent, Curry said. “So we must focus on creating jobs [and taking care of] our seniors and our children,” he said.
But the real unemployment rate is above 22 percent and, in some areas, more than 50 percent, said Eric Bracken, Florida director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “We need [Gimenez] to lead the city with a vision that includes the middle class.”
Gimenez said the county is facing challenging times “and the African-American community seems to be affected, particularly with respect to unemployment. The sector out there that needs the jobs most are those in construction and those without a college degree.”
Gimenez said that he wants to do for the African-American community “what I do for the rest of Dade County: I intend to give them exactly what they deserve.”
Asked about a plan to assist small businesses, Gimenez said that he wants to “help black businesses thrive but my focus is about bringing jobs. I can’t please everybody … I have to balance the budget.”
The mayor said a number of companies are looking to invest in destination gaming, adding, “This is $3 billion and 15,000 jobs. But this requires changing the law and I am working on that.”
The NAACP, a coalition of trade unions and several churches sponsored the meeting.
Miami-Dade faces a budget shortfall that could be as high as $400 million. Gimenez’s plan could increase the number of unemployed people, with the proposed elimination of some 1,200 jobs. The county commission is expected to take a final vote on Sept. 22.
Gimenez also was questioned on his proposal to change how Head Start opeates in the county. Privatizing the program would be a dangerous step, said Bill Diggs, president of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce. “There are only so many people who can take care of children. This issue affects our community and is not the same for everyone else,” he said.
Gimenez said he was “willing to take another look.”
The Rev. Joaquin Willis, pastor of Church of the Open Door in Miami, who described the county as “one of the richest” areas in America, said the reality is that the middle class African-American community is dissolving.
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net
Photo: Carlos Gimenez