America's Mayors: Governing In Tough Times
1:10 pm
Thu August 4, 2011

In Miami-Dade, Economic Upheaval Ushers In Change

Part 6 of a 6-part series

The economic upheaval of the past several years has had a big impact on the nation's politics — from the president down to the precinct level.

In Florida's Miami-Dade County, it's changed the whole tone of local government.

Carlos Gimenez has been a fixture here for many years — as a member of the Board of County Commissioners, and before that as city manager and fire chief in the City of Miami.

But now he suddenly finds himself in a new job.

On July 6, Gimenez was sworn in as the mayor of Miami-Dade County. It's Florida's most populous county with 50 departments, 27,000 public employees and a $6 billion annual budget.

It's a job he ran for and won in a nonpartisan election, after the previous mayor, Carlos Alvarez, was recalled. That recall, in March, was part of a national wave of voter anger over taxes.

The former mayor, recalls Gimenez, pushed through a budget that, during a time of high unemployment and falling housing prices, raised property taxes and gave salary increases to unionized public workers.

"It was unfortunate for the taxpayer because they had to pay more," he says. "And it was unfortunate for the mayor."

A Budget That May Be Tough To Swallow

Shortly after the County Commission approved that budget, a recall campaign started that eventually ousted the mayor. Gimenez — a just-the-facts kind of guy, never known for his wit or sense of humor — voted against that budget.

He's often been a dissenting voice on the county commission, opposing government spending plans. He recognized an opportunity in that recall campaign.

"You know, Miami-Dade County is no different than the rest of the country," he says. "There was a groundswell against increasing taxes. There was a groundswell against labor unions, in terms of their contracts and all that. And so, I just don't think that some of the powers-that-be in the county hall ... were listening to what really was going on. And it cost them their jobs."

Gimenez won a special election, and one of his first acts was to produce a county budget nearly 20 percent less than the current $7.6 billion. The plan rolls back property taxes, cuts 1,300 county jobs, and depends on more than $200 million in concessions by police, firefighters and other unionized employees.

Gimenez concedes that the last piece — asking workers to pay more for health care and retirement, and at the same time to accept a salary cut — will be tough for unions to swallow.

"I fully expect that we're going to go to impasse with labor," he says. "I will try to work with them as much as I can to see how we can work things out. But at the end of the day, we have to balance this budget, and a lot of it is ... counting on those concessions."

The final word on those cuts rests with members of the County Commission. But the commission has already given the mayor's plan preliminary approval, and now has little wiggle room left. Commission Chairman Joe Martinez says that his main concern is with county workers on the low end of the wage scale.

"When you add up the concessions that will be taken, [for] some people it's about a 20 percent cut. When you're talking $40,000 that you make a year, you're leaving some people with $32,000," Martinez says. "And these are people who are residents, taxpayers, who have mortgages, rents; they pay the light bill, the phone bill, everything else, just like you and I do."

Decisions Based On Fear?

Given the message of the recall, and the County Commission's near unanimous support of Gimenez's austerity budget, even the public employees' unions seem resigned to the cuts.

Greg Blackman represents some 5,000 county professionals who are members of the Government Supervisors Association. In a county where the unemployment rate is near 14 percent, he believes these cuts aren't good for his members or for the county economy.

It's no surprise, he says, that they're being proposed by Gimenez — a longtime fiscal hawk. What's disappointed Blackman, and other union leaders, is how the rest of the County Commission has fallen in line behind the mayor.

"There is a fear in the commission," says Blackman. "They're scared of being recalled, so they're making decisions that are not really based on what's best for the county. They're making these decisions, I think, based on fear."

As a reform candidate, Gimenez says he'll also work to change the county charter — to impose term limits on county commissioners, plus restrictions on lobbying and a ban on outside work.

He has limited time. In winning a special election, Gimenez knows that he has just over a year to carry out his agenda before going back to the voters once again.

"They're taking me out for a test drive, and so I better hit all the gears and I better make all the turns," he says. "I have a listing of what I said that I will do — I'm going to do it. And then the voters will decide next November."

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