Miami Herald: “Miami-Dade’s 2020 budget approved, after demands to fix the county’s sewer system”

Miami-Dade County commissioners narrowly approved higher garbage fees Thursday as part of Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed $8.9 billion budget, a spending plan with mostly flat tax rates that goes into effect Oct. 1.

The vote to approve the 2020 budget followed concerns on both sides of the $853 million that’s set aside for the county’s troubled water-and-sewer system, which is under a federal court order to replace pipes and treatment plants in a system where ruptures are tied to pollution woes with Biscayne Bay.

“Miami-Dade County is currently in the midst — and has been for quite some time — of a sewage infrastructure crisis,” Rachel Silverstein, head of the Miami Waterkeeper advocacy group, told commissioners during the public hearing before the votes. “This body has the power to fix it. Now. To not kick the can down the road, until pipes are literally bursting at our feet.”

With citizen groups urging more spending on sewer fixes, Gimenez barely won the seven votes needed to advance higher water-and-sewer rates at the first budget meeting on Sept. 5. He wound up with a more comfortable margin Thursday night when commissioners adopted them 10-3, but the higher rates were still a sticking point going into Thursday’s four-hour budget meeting. Gimenez warned keeping rates flat would push the county out of compliance with a 2014 settlement with federal regulators to complete a $1.8 billion sewage upgrade by 2026.

Voting no on the water rates were Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Joe Martinez and Javier Souto. The new rate structure involves tweaks to existing fees tied to volume of water consumed per household and business, with the overall revenue from individual accounts set to increase 6%.

Though commissioners had already endorsed a proposed 4% hike in county trash fees during a June vote, the final approval passed 7-6, with Diaz, Martinez and Souto joined by Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Rebeca Sosa and Xavier Suarez in opposition.

With property-tax rates mostly flat — the tax that pays voter-authorized debt is set to rise in 2020, amounting to a less than 1% increase in the combined rates — the Gimenez budget did not draw significant controversy or outcry in the town halls and meetings leading to the final vote.

Advocates for affordable housing pushed for more dollars in the two September budget hearings but wound up with no extra money in the spending plan approved Thursday night. Gimenez did add money for some nonprofits seeking additional grant funds. Play VideoDuration 1:17What is life like in this Miami affordable housing building? Clifford Johnson, 61, was homeless. Now the Liberty City native has rebuilt his life and is living at the Hampton Village Apartments in Brownsville, Florida. 

Those include the Lotus House homeless shelter for women, the Live Like Bella childhood-cancer foundation and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which cares for abandoned and abused livestock and large animals under a county contract (including a neglected camel, as the group noted in the first budget hearing, and a stray tortoise, as the group noted in the second hearing).

Unveiled in July, the $8.9 billion budget still has longer hours for some county libraries, extra payroll slots for firefighters, paramedics and police, dollars to clean up seaweed on beaches and $3 million of new money for the county’s affordable-housing trust fund.

Though flat tax rates preserve services in 2020, the Gimenez budget projects revenue gaps in the coming years if property values don’t exceed estimates. The 2020 budget also scraps a planned 25-cent increase in fares for the county’s underfunded transit system, which is counting on increased ridership and hiring delays to close a $5 million revenue gap caused by flat fares.

Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, a candidate to replace a term-limited Gimenez as mayor in 2020, said the plan was troubling because it puts service at risk. “I’ve heard from many about the deficiencies of our transit system,” she said. “We’ve had explanations why that $5 million is not needed. … But I’m not persuaded.”

While spending is up 3% in the approved Water and Sewer budget for 2020, long-term dollars for expansion projects drop 45 percent over the next 15 years as the Gimenez administration scraps plans for new plants it says were based on overly aggressive usage projections. Instead of the $15 billion for long-term projects in 2018, the 2020 budget has about $7.5 billion for them through 2035.

“We’re not going to be spending money unnecessarily,” Gimenez said after the final budget vote at 9:16 p.m., an unusually early conclusion for a yearly session that starts at 5 p.m. and sometimes lasts well into the following day.

Commissioner Barbara Jordan asked the Gimenez administration to consider using the expense savings on helping other long-term problems for the county’s sewer system, including sewer connections for more than 91,000 homes and businesses on septic tanks at risk from rising water tables.

“I would like to ask that the department look at a plan to eliminate septic tanks in Miami-Dade County within the next five to 10 years,” Jordan said, an effort she said would cost $4 billion. “Come back with a plan.”BY

Randy Erion, plant mechanic, left, and Roberto Diaz, maintenance mechanic, inspect Pump Station 811 in Kendall on Aug. 1, 2019. The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department is increasing spending in 2020 under an $8.9 million county budget approved Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, by Miami-Dade commissioners.

Randy Erion, plant mechanic, left, and Roberto Diaz, maintenance mechanic, inspect Pump Station 811 in Kendall on Aug. 1, 2019. The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department is increasing spending in 2020 under an $8.9 million county budget approved Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, by Miami-Dade commissioners. CARL JUSTE  CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

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