South Florida’s local governments have reached the thick of their budget seasons, with village councils, city commissions and county boards coming together to hash out the best way, in a severe economic downturn, to pass a spending plan for the 2021 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Municipal governments are grappling with slumping revenue from an economy battered by the closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the call from some activists to decrease police spending and adjust budgetary priorities to address other needs.
In most cases locally, those calls have been met with little support from politicians. Nonetheless, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a legislative proposal Monday that, among other things, targets counties and municipalities that move to “defund police” by threatening to pull state grants and aid.
The proposal, called the “Combating Violence, Disorder, Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act,” is DeSantis’ first of the 2021 legislative session and also includes calls for harsher penalties for protesters.
Flanked by incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, DeSantis said the proposal would “probably be the boldest and most comprehensive piece of legislation to address these issues anywhere in the country.”
But after the announcement, the mayors of numerous municipalities in Miami-Dade County told the Miami Herald the governor’s threat wouldn’t affect them because no cuts are planned to their police budgets.
“His announcement won’t impact us,” said Doral Mayor JC Bermudez. “We don’t fall in that category.”
The mayors of Cutler Bay, Homestead, Miami Lakes, Miami Gardens, Palmetto Bay and Pinecrest said the same.
“We are not cutting our police budget,” said Cutler Bay Mayor Tim Meerbott. “If anything, I’d like to increase it — hopefully next year.”
The long reach of Tallahassee
Other officials blasted the governor for trying to meddle in local budgetary decisions. Joseph Corradino, the mayor of Pinecrest and the first vice president of the Miami-Dade County League of Cities, said the overreach is what “Tallahassee does to local government all the time.”
“There’s no way the state can know what’s better for the local government than the local government itself,” he said.
Homestead Mayor Steve Losner, who is also on the local League of Cities board, echoed that sentiment.
“They are continually eroding our ability of self determination,” he said.
Oliver Gilbert, the mayor of Miami Gardens — Florida’s largest majority-Black city — said state and national leaders should trust those at the municipal level to do what’s best for their residents.
“The process that we have long relied upon to address funding and governance is called elections, not press conferences,” Gilbert said, referring to DeSantis’ press conference Monday in Winter Haven. “The city of Miami Gardens is not cutting the budget to our police department. However, if we were, it would be in response to the needs of our community.”
DeSantis’ approach comes after months of protests throughout the country that have sparked a national reckoning about policing and racial inequality. The crackdown also mimics the hard-line rhetoric of President Donald Trump, whose presidential reelection campaign has held up Democrat-led cities like Chicago, Portland and Seattle as examples where protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake have led to destruction.
The dangers posed by protests reverberated across conservative media all summer, though Florida was largely spared of violence or property damage. On Monday, DeSantis was scheduled to appear on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
Joseph Martinez, an organizer with Florida group Dream Defenders, said the rhetoric does not line up with activists’ demands.
“In this political moment, what you have is individuals like Trump trying to embolden individuals on the far right to make it seem like places defunding the police are anti-government,” he said. “The rhetoric being thrown out doesn’t necessarily line up ... this is propaganda to maintain a narrative that we need police in our communities to make things safe.”
Local debate over reducing police spending
Municipal governments have trimmed fat in their budgets in response to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Doral, for example, has cut part-time workers and chosen to delay some public works projects, according to Bermudez, the city’s mayor.
“You’ve got to tighten up, basically,” he said. “That’s what it’s coming down to.”
But leaders in most cities say they haven’t dipped into police budgets for cuts, despite some cries both nationally and locally to do so. Even in South Florida, the most left-leaning region of the state, some discussions of decreasing police budgets have been quickly shut down.
In Miami-Dade, hundreds of residents advocated during budget hearings for police funding to be reallocated toward social services. But county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican running for Congress, has shot down those suggestions, saying at a meeting earlier this month: “The vast majority of people want nothing to do with defunding the police.”
At a commission meeting in July in Coral Springs in Broward County, activists including students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke against a proposal for local police to take $28,000 in federal grants for new equipment. Instead of taking money for items like “less lethal shotguns” that shoot potentially dangerous bean bag rounds, the activists called for a focus on mental health services.
“As a current student, I ask that we don’t invest in the police,” Logan Rubenstein, the president of the Parkland chapter of the student-led anti-gun violence group March for Our Lives, said during the virtual meeting.
But others pushed back, including the head of the Coral Springs police union, Glenn Matonak, who called those who spoke against the grants “the biggest farce this community has ever heard” and said their requests were “absurd.” The city commission ultimately voted unanimously to accept the money.
One notable exception is the city of Miami, the county’s largest municipality, which is facing a budget shortfall of more than $20 million for the current fiscal year, and a projected shortfall of about $33 million for the next budget cycle that begins Oct. 1.
Officials have proposed restructuring the system of administrative offices in Miami’s neighborhoods to reduce costs and by eliminating 100 vacant jobs citywide. Multiple departments face tightened budgets.
The administration’s proposal includes a net decrease of 26 positions in the police department. All but one, a high-ranking position in the chief’s office, are civilian posts. Under the proposed budget, about 33 cents out of every dollar budgeted from the city’s general fund, which is fueled primarily by property taxes, would go to the police department.
Overall, the Miami Police Department’s spending plan for the next budget year marks a $1.3 million decrease due to tightened budgets for office supplies to car rentals to weapons and ammunition. Other reductions are partially offset by a 3% wage increase for officers in the police union, totaling about $2.8 million that were negotiated prior to the budget crunch.
The Fraternal Order of Police has one more year left in its collective bargaining agreement, while the city’s other labor unions are approaching the end of their contracts.
In Palmetto Bay, there was public outcry after an early budget drafted by the village manager suggested the police department cut costs by not filling two positions left vacant by retired officers. Mailers, emails and videos were sent to residents accusing village Mayor Karyn Cunningham of “defunding the police.” Cunningham said she received over 200 texts and emails from concerned residents.
The two positions were eventually restored into the $9 million police department allocation, which makes up more than half of the village’s annual budget.
Cunningham, who is not up for reelection until 2022, says the widely shared draft budget proposal was a political ploy, and that the discourse around defunding police departments is more political than realistic.
“They are using the national type of politics because they are so politically charged,” she said. “Unfortunately, Palmetto Bay can be politically charged as well.”
No commissioners spoke in favor of police cuts during the vote on the county’s $9 billion spending plan that boosts revenues for law enforcement, but Miami-Dade County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Daniela Levine Cava did praise the calls to spend more on services and to expand the county’s existing programs aimed at reducing jail time for some offenders.
In a statement Monday, she denounced DeSantis’ plan.
“The vile threats by the governor today only divides communities and threatens our residents’ safety and well-being,” she wrote.
A call for ‘law and order’
DeSantis’ proposal also would create a new felony crime for property damage or injury during a protest of seven or more people. The plan would also protect drivers “fleeing for safety from a mob” from liability for injuries or deaths they may cause.
The measure would enact a six-month mandatory minimum sentence to anyone convicted of striking a law enforcement officer during an unlawful assembly and would prohibit anyone charged with crimes related to such assemblies from being released on bail or bond before a first appearance before a judge.
State and local governments would also be prohibited from hiring people who have criminal records related to disorderly gatherings, and people who are already government employees who are convicted of participating in a disorderly assembly could be fired and lose their state benefits.
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Kirby Wilson and Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the chair of the political committee that sent mailers out targeting Karyn Cunningham sent similar mailers targeting Daniella Levine Cava. The political committees that sent the mailers are chaired by two separate people.