City of Miami commissioners finalized a budget Thursday evening, for a total of $524 million. One of the stickier points concerned police officers – from how many should patrol city streets to how much they should be paid.
The struggle pitted citizens against cops and focused on the question of whether the city should hire more police officers or restore compensation lost by those already on the payroll.
Some members of the audience wore yellow T-shirts that read: “You Can’t Hire 100 New MPD Cops If You Can’t Take Care Of The Ones You Already Have.”
Acting City Manager Daniel Alfonso urged the commission to use caution.
“The city is definitely better off than it was in 2010, 2011, 2012,” Alfonso said. “However we’re not quite where we were some years ago. 2014-15 is likely to be better.”
After about four hours of passionate debate, the commission’s final budget included a plan for 95 new officers by next April. Commissioners also agreed to allocate $2 million from reserves to restore police benefits.
All five commissioners agreed that the city’s police squads are underpaid and understaffed, and that needs to change.
“Safety is definitely our number one priority,” Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones said. “You have to take care of the people that take care of you.”
The starting salary for a new police officer in Miami is set just below $46,000 - lower than the starting pay for officers in neighboring communities, including Miami Beach and Aventura, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement figures. Additionally, over the past four years, Miami officers’ salaries have been cut, and some benefits even eliminated, including bonuses for higher education and added duties, such as SWAT team membership.
Low pay may have contributed to the another department problem - officer retainment. The city has already lost at least four officers to early retirement this year, and Police Chief Manuel Orosa expects to lose at least 20 more next year. Some even leave without a push to retire. Better pay is often enough to attract them elsewhere.
“We lost three officers yesterday - they didn’t retire, they just left,” explained Javier Ortiz, president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police. “And we can’t get them on fast enough [to replace the others].”
South Coconut Grove resident Fernand Amandi commended the outcome of Thursday’s hearing. He spoke on behalf of his neighbors, who have experienced a 67 percent spike in burglaries over the last year.
“Every element of this city breaks down if there is a security concern,” Amandi said. “Public safety... is the greatest responsibility of the City of Miami government, and any government for that matter.
Negotiations on the details of police contracts start Friday. The new fiscal year begins October.