Miami Dade County Community Forum

Monday, September 21, 2009

Miami Herald on Virginia Key Beach Park Budget Cuts.

A few days ago on this blog, Greg Bush commented on this issue regarding Virginia Key Beach Park:

Digging deeper, Miami may cut once-untouchable agencies
Miami would shut down its network of NET offices, the problem-solving neighborhood outposts of City Hall, under a proposed budget that aims to close a yawning $118 million budget gap.

Mayor Manny Diaz's budget plan would also scrap the city's film office, responsible for the care and handling of cable TV's most popular summer show, Burn Notice.

And it would pull the financial plug on the nonprofit trust that runs the historic, formerly ``blacks only'' Virginia Key Beach Park, which reopened to great fanfare less than two years ago after a multimillion-dollar restoration.

The three agencies are among several city or city-supported programs targeted for outright elimination by the administration's budget writers, who have also recommended deep cuts in police, parks and other municipal services.

Those ``zeroed-out'' programs could still see at least some of their funding restored by the time the city commission finalizes the budget Thursday, subject to ongoing negotiations one commission aide called ``very fluid.''

But the fact that some agencies once seen as sacrosanct were singled out for no money illustrates the depths of the financial crisis besetting the city. Even if commissioners adopt Diaz's $511.4 million budget in its entirely -- an unlikely scenario -- it would still leave them with a $28 million hole to fill.

``People have to realize that the budget crisis in the city of Miami is much deeper than in the county, which is getting all the attention,'' said Dario Moreno, director of Florida International University's Metropolitan Center who has conducted campaign polling for Diaz. ``That's almost one-eighth of the budget that's disappeared. Their situation is dire.''

The political and practical difficulty of the choices couldn't be plainer than in the case of the Virginia Key Beach Trust, backed by much of the city and county's black leadership, or the proposed elimination of the NET offices, popular in many areas where a trip to City Hall is nearly inconceivable.

Virginia Key Park administrators and trust members spent much of last week in meetings at City Hall with administrators and two key commissioners, Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes the city-owned beach, and Michelle Spence-Jones, whose district encompasses most of the city's black neighborhoods.


Spence-Jones said through an aide she wants some continued funding to the Virginia Key trust, to allow the group time to become self-supporting. She also strongly supports the continued operation of the NET offices, at least those in her district, the aide said.

Trust leaders say cutting off all $1.3 million in city funding so abruptly would jeopardize the park's future as well as other funding, in particular $20 million in bonds earmarked by the county for a planned museum focusing on the ecologically rich site's social and natural history.

``We were a bit blindsided. Our staff would be wiped out and all operations underway would grind to a halt,'' said trust Chair Gene Tinnie. ``The cost of the disruption to the taxpayers could exceed what's being saved.''

Other smaller city offices would also be eliminated by the budget plan, including the mayor's Office of Sustainable Initiatives, which coordinates environmentally friendly ``green'' programs and the Community Relations Board, as well as $750,000 for festivals and $1 million for parks and green space acquisition.

Among agencies facing a total shutdown, the loss of NET offices would be likely the most widely felt by city residents. Eliminating the agency would save $4.5 million and cost 49 city employees their jobs, including some members of the city's much-praised homeless outreach teams, which are managed and partly funded by NET.

The 13 NET offices, created in the 1990s at a time when City Hall came under intense public criticism for neglecting its neighborhoods, function as one-stop shopping for residents seeking municipal services, permits for tree cutting or block parties, or help with complaints ranging from potholes to noise and trash dumping.

NET officers also function as troubleshooters, monitoring neighborhood conditions and coordinating deployment of crews that clear illegal dumps, said NET administrator David Rosemond.

Support also runs deep for Virginia Key Beach, for decades during segregation the only one open to black Miamians and later closed for more than 20 years. It was revived after a 10-year campaign led by the late Athalie Range, the city's first black commissioner, spurred by plans the city floated to turn it over to private development.

Trust leaders say they now fear the same concept may be in the offing again, as city administrators urge them to explore ``partnering'' with developers to establish overnight accommodations or other profit-making ventures.

``We have had very casual and perfunctory conversations about this,'' Tinnie said.

``I'm not opposed to talking to private interests, but we have a vision. It's as if I'm hearing no kind of understanding of the idea that an open natural space is an economic asset in and of itself.''


The trust oversaw renovations and runs the 82-acre park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. This year it supplemented city funding with nearly $1 million in income from donations and parking, concerts, festivals and rentals.

But those events would end without the staff to run them, trust administrators say.
The city money helps pay for a staff of 15 full-time employees to maintain the beach, plan and manage ongoing renovations and the museum, and run history and nature tours.

While the beach would not close, its operation would be taken over by a parks department that is already stretched thin and is itself facing a 25 percent budget cut.

At least one ``zeroed-out'' agency doesn't face folding, however. The Bayfront Park Trust, the semi-independent agency that runs the downtown park, earns most of its $3.6 million budget from paying events. Its finances were recently shored up by a deal with Live Nation to manage its popular amphitheater. The concert promoter put up more than $2 million to renovate it.

The budget plan would cut the city's entire $585,000 contribution to the park, which would force cuts in services, pay rollbacks and frozen positions, said Bayfront trust Director Timothy Schmand. Even though business has been down because of the economic downturn, Schmand said he will seek more paying events to compensate.

``One of the beauties of being Bayfront Park is we have the ability to make money. We're optimistic,'' he said.

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