With a dual goal of re-hiring some police officers and replenishing its reserve fund, Miami Gardens is poised to pass a $72 million operating budget next week that will hike property taxes by 11 percent.
The City Council voted almost unanimously Sept. 12 for the spending plan. A second and final vote will take place Wednesday, Sept. 28. If the proposed budget passes, the current tax rate of $5.91 per $1,000 of taxable property will jump to $6.56. The bottom line for the average homeowner: about $23 more in annual property taxes, according to City Manager Danny Crew.
The tax increas-e is anticipated to generate about $2.15 million, of which $1.5 million will go towards boosting the current reserve fund of $1.8 million. The rest of the money, about $650,000, will be used to fill nine of 10 vacancies in the police department, Crew said.
“It’s been very difficult to do this,” Crew said of the proposed property tax hike. “The council and employees are doing what they need to keep costs down. We’re asking residents for their $20 and the employees for their sacrifice.”
While the budget does not call for any layoffs of the city’s 520 employees, workers will not get annual cost-of-living pay increases and many will have to take mandatory furloughs – days off without pay.
“We are in a tough position, like other cities,” said Miami Gardens Vice Mayor Aaron Campbell. “If we have a hurricane or something like that, we would be in trouble without more money in the reserve fund. So many other cities are laying off police officers and employees but we tightened our belt and we’re doing fine.”
City Councilman Andre Williams says the city should find other ways to tighten its belt.
“I am absolutely opposed to raising taxes in the city of Miami Gardens. Our residents are already struggling with a 17 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the county,” said Williams, who alone voted against the proposed tax hike at the first reading of the budget. He said he plans to do so again on Wednesday.
Williams is proposing that, instead of the 11 percent tax hike, the city should use the $2 million it spends each year to stage the “Jazz in the Gardens” festival. The event, now in
its sixth year, attracts renowned recording artists and celebrities, who perform at Sun Life Stadium. The festival consistently has lost money but the city continues to fund it, Williams said.
“It’s a great party,” Williams said, “but I’m not going to support raising taxes by 11 percent to throw a party.”
Councilwoman Lisa Davis disagrees. “The Jazz in the Gardens festival is not about a party but a brand,” she said. “It put Miami Gardens on the map. It takes time to build a brand and that’s what we are trying to do.”
Deputy City Manager Renee Crichton said the festival is cost-neutral and the money the city uses to stage it is like a loan to the festival. The city either makes money from ticket sales and other festival income or breaks even or possibly suffers a loss.
“There is no $2 million to begin with,” Crew added. “It’s anticipated revenue. We can’t take $2 million and put it on other services because the money for the festival is borrowed from the city and the jazz festival pays us back. We hope to regain the money from selling tickets. Anything left over is profit.”
Crew said the festival provides jobs for residents, who work as ushers or participate as vendors. Police also can benefit from the off-duty hours they put in at the event.
Some police officers were among about 20 city workers and residents who attended the first hearing and voiced their support for the proposed budget.
“One resident said if it means keeping the city strong that she would not mind one less trip to the nail salon next year,” Crew said.
He was not speaking of Ruby Milligan, a resident since 1993, who opposes the proposed tax increase.
“I am appalled that anyone would consider an 11 percent increase on the middle class,” said Milligan, a retired Miami-Dade County Public Schools teacher. She agrees with Williams that the city should eliminate the jazz festival.
“We can’t have pet projects,” Milligan said, referring to city leaders who look upon the jazz festival as a sacred municipal cow. “If that’s your baby, you need to have your personal friends put up the money for it, not the taxpayers.”