MIAMI — City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones said this week that she is "working hard" to reverse the proposed zero-budget proposal for Virginia Key Beach Park.
Spence-Jones and other supporters of the park are trying to gain support from Mayor Manny Diaz and a majority of Miami's five city commissioners. After a Sept. 10 public hearing, commissioners left the park at zero funding for the 2009-10 fiscal year, down from last year's $1.2 million.
The move, supporters say, will virtually close down the park, though some city officials say the city will keep the park open with minimal city staffing. The city funds the park, which is operated by the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust.
Supporters are gearing up for what they hope will be a big rally in their favor at the city commission's Sept. 24 budget meeting, where the fate of the park will likely be decided.
Although other organizations are taking the same budget hit, Spence-Jones said that "most have had the city's support such that they can operate without the city's support."
The city, according to its budget proposal, can support the park like any other park, but Spence-Jones added "not with the same bells and whistles. The key is to lobby the mayoral candidates."
The park has a storied history.
In 1945, blacks waded into the water at Miami's all-white beaches to demand that what was then Dade County government make a public beach available for them.
A wade-in at Haulover Beach, led by attorney Lawson E. Thomas, persuaded Dade County officials to establish Virginia Key Beach, which was the first Colored Only beach in Miami.
All of Miami's public beaches became integrated in the '60s.
Virginia Key Park remained open until 1982, when it was transferred to the city of Miami.
Many reasons surrounded the park's closing, from insufficient funding and upkeep by the city, to the integration of all public beaches. Some people have cited underlying racial tensions for the closing.
Virginia Key Park reopened last year as both a park and museum, and sought to bring back some of the features it offered in 1945, including a carousel.
The proposed cuts are a blow to efforts to recognize the park's history, supporters say.
Spence-Jones said the trust does not have a champion in its district commissioner, Mark Sarnoff, and the city has not provided the trust with the support it needs to gain self-sufficiency.
Sarnoff said that he "shares in the concern" over the unprecedented budget crisis the city of Miami is facing.
"I can never remember a time when the mayor is suggesting the idea of firing nearly 200 police officers and hundreds of other employees; this, at a time when thousands in our community are already without jobs," Sarnoff said.
Under the proposed budget by Mayor Manny Diaz, Sarnoff said, many worthy agencies, projects and departments are slated to receive no funding. VKB is among those valued organizations, including the Bayfront Park Trust.
"All in that category," said Sarnoff. "The fact of the matter is that for every project or agency we fund, that results in more first responders that will require cutting. That's a difficult decision to have to weigh, but that is exactly what all five city commissioners are facing."
Virginia Key Beach board member Sue Germain said she knows that city commissioners all have things "they want to fund. There are the homeless efforts, people are hungry; those are the basic necessities of life. All we are asking for is a chance, an opportunity to become self-sufficient. Eventually, we will be self-sustaining, but we need help until that time. If we don't get money from the city, we're done."
Sarnoff added that there is no doubt that the VKB Trust is an asset to the community of prime historical significance, "but the sad fact is that this city does not have enough money to fund many great programs. If our city's unions decide that they are willing to face the tiered salary reductions that constraint will change."
Spence-Jones cited decreased tax revenues from the declining value of homes, plus pension and employee costs, as reasons for the park's budget cut.
She said the city commission has been unwilling to raise the tax rate to fill the funding gap.
"We have until Sept. 24 when our particular budget goes before the commissioners," David S. Friedman, VKB's marketing and media director said.
VKB trustees, staff and supporters are contacting other organizations to seek their support in reinstating minimum funding to the trust, Friedman said, "so we can survive and pursue the programs we have already established here."
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said that under the proposed budget, the park will remain open with daily operations managed by the City of Miami Parks and Recreation department. Funding for staff and additional programming, he said, will not be provided for fiscal year 2010; the trust board will remain in an advisory capacity to the city.
The trust board will continue to have access to any existing fund balances, Diaz explained. The administration has not proposed that any unspent balances be recaptured.
Friedman, however, described the commission's proposed decision not to fund VKB as "very short-sighted and rash" as they have "vested more than $25 million into the preservation of the historic park. Since this is one of the symbols of Miami's rich heritage and also a symbol of democracy in action, all of this would be lost for future generations."
Germain said the trust is planning rallies to gain even more support from the community.
"We have to get the community to not only support us, but to attend the [Sept. 24] commission meeting. Probably by the time we get to the commission meeting, they would have already made their decision," she said. "Whatever they are going to do, they will do. But what we are hoping to do is garner several people to go with us to see several of the commissioners and show them that the community is behind us, which they are."
Photo: City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones