Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez hosted a two-hour county budget town hall meeting at the Palmetto Bay Village Hall Council Chambers on Thursday, Aug. 8, drawing a standing room only crowd of residents from Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay, Pinecrest, Kendall and other surrounding communities.
After an initial 40-minute presentation by the mayor; budget director Jennifer Moon; Lisa Martinez of the Miami-Dade Library system, and Alex Munoz of Animal Services, who talked about plans to move toward a no-kill initiative at shelters, dozens of residents lined up to take their turn at the microphone to ask questions, express concerns and often display open hostility toward the county’s budget cuts affecting libraries, the fire rescue department and animal services.
Mayor Gimenez began by thanking everyone for being there, including area mayors — Shelley Stanczyk of Palmetto Bay and Cindy Lerner of Pinecrest. He sought to explain the need for cuts.
“Since getting elected mayor two years ago my priority has been getting our county government back on a sustainable path,” Gimenez said. “I can tell you, that’s a challenging process. We have to strike a tough balance. There’s no doubt that keeping the fire and library millages at the same rate will create serious challenges.
“As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when I presented the budget proposal to the commission, the worst case scenario for the fire department was the elimination of up to six of the department’s 139 units and as many as 149 unfilled positions,” he continued.
“However, we have continued to work on reducing the impact to the department and now plan to place only three units out of service. As a result we’ll keep all fire rescue units in operation. This is important, since 85 percent of all calls received are for fire rescue services. Contrary to media reports, we are not closing any fire stations.”
Gimenez said that the rolling brown outs are for keeping operating costs for this year’s budget down and have nothing to do with next year’s budget.
“With regard to libraries, keeping our library millage flat will also affect services,” Gimenez said. “When I presented the proposed budget proposal to the commission I stated that the worst case would be the closing of 12 branch libraries and 10 store front facilities with an impact of up to 251 positions being eliminated. I want to take a moment to provide you an update on this particular issue because we understand how important libraries are to our community.”
Describing how the libraries are used, he added, “With this in mind, my administration has been doing everything it can to keep as many libraries open as possible. As of today, the number of expected library closings has gone from 22 down to 13. We hope to bring that number down a bit more before we finalize the budget.”
After the county presentations concluded, residents waited in line to complain about the cuts and plead with the mayor and his staff to save the libraries, animal services and fire stations. Children as young as 9- years-old, to senior citizens and all ages inbetween made lengthy and impassioned statements about what the services meant to them, and not all were polite.
“I’m over a 50-year resident here,” said one man who did not identify himself. “I grew up using the library as a child. I continue as an adult to use them. I check out hard books and I also check out e-books. I’ve adopted two dogs from the Miami shelter in the past and I have also used fire rescue in the past when needed.
“I have no financial interest in any of the departments or have anything to do with any of them. I’m a taxpayer and an active voter and a contributor to political candidates whom I support. I voted for you as mayor last time. I’m not going to do it again.”
That comment drew applause from the crowd, making him pause before continuing, “I’m going to tell you why. I go into my library and I see a picture of someone who say’s he’s a mayor and he wants us to read. Guess what — that’s not the person here. Because that person wouldn’t be such a hypocrite to cut the budgets the way you’’re cutting them. It’s stupid, it’s shortsighted and it’s not in the interest of my community.”
He criticized the mayor’s management and quoted from county budget records showing what he said was an increase in expenditures in the mayor’s office and county attorney’s office that seemed in conflict with the plan to save money.
Another man complained that there was no town hall meeting in his area, West Kendall, where they were closing a library. Mayor Gimenez said that the problem with that library was that it was a storefront facility and that the rent was too high.
There will be town hall meetings on Thursday, Aug. 22, 6 p.m. at the West Dade Regional Library, 9445 Coral Way, and on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 6 p.m., at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 NE 59 Terr.