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Police Need More Money, Tech to Meet Florida School Protection Mandates

State requirements, created in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, are forcing police agencies to ask for more funds to pay for staff and specialized units focused on mining social media for threats.

(TNS) — State mandates for local governments to protect schools after the Parkland massacre have Miami-Dade tapping reserves to avoid tax increases in the county’s proposed 2019 budget to help pay for dozens of police officers in suburban schools and to create new units dedicated to responding to mass shootings and mining social media to discover potential attackers.

The county police force plans to dispatch up to 120 police officers to public schools in areas where Miami-Dade serves as the local police agency. Armed school security is required under a state law passed after the Feb. 14 massacre of 17 students and school staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The county expects it will cost about $20 million in a proposed 2019 budget with $7.8 billion in spending — a financial plan that keeps property-tax rates mostly flat.

The county’s contribution should cover about half of the schools without officers provided by the school system’s own police force. The school system already had officers at middle and high schools and is expanding its ranks to cover more campuses while asking local governments to help supply police at elementary schools.

Cities are being asked to send police to some schools within their boundaries. Miami-Dade serves as a municipal government for areas outside of city limits and plans to dispatch police to schools there.

The county plans to fill the school slots by having officers work more overtime shifts, giving a cushion to allow the agency to expand its roster enough to take on the new duties at a cheaper hourly rate. The county is expecting only $2 million from the state to cover an additional $20 million in overtime expenses.

“This proposed budget has not been easy to balance,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a Monday morning press conference. “Let me stress: This can only be done for a limited time.”

Miami-Dade also plans to create a new division of patrol squads that won’t respond to calls but will rove the county in order to be available to respond to mass shootings. That adds another $10 million to the plan, bringing the full tab to about $30 million.

“It is not possible to hire the number of police officers needed before the school year starts,” Gimenez said, calling the overtime shifts for police the “most expensive” way to comply with state law.

The beefed-up police presence captures the significant government resources being spent on school security after Florida’s worst school shooting, which was carried out despite an armed school police officer being stationed at Stoneman Douglas High. Florida now requires armed security at all schools, and South Florida districts have opted not to utilize the cheaper option of providing firearms to school staff as a way to comply with the law.

With Miami-Dade police staffing already below national standards, county administrators warn they can’t sustain the planned beefed-up enforcement beyond 2021 without additional funds from the state or school system. The budget for the suburban taxing district covering the new police expenses moves into a deficit next year, and the red ink only worsens after Gimenez is scheduled to leave office in 2020.

A boost in property values helped cushion rising expenses countywide this year, and the mayor’s proposed budget keeps all but one property-tax rate either flat or lower.

The overall property-tax rate would rise less than 1 percent due to an increase in the levy for voter-authorized debt. Miami-Dade’s budget office said projects from the county’s Jackson hospital system, endorsed in a 2013 referendum on $830 million in new debt, is responsible for the rise.

It would be the first increase in the overall tax rate since the 2015 budget. For properties within the county’s fire and library taxing districts, the total county tax rate would be $976.43 for every $100,000 of taxable value, up from $970.74. That’s a total tax rate of less than 1 percent, though property taxes paid to the school system, city governments, and state boards get added to that.

While tax rates would remain nearly flat in 2019, spending on the county government would rise about 6 percent. The county’s operating budget would cross the $5 billion mark for the first time, up nearly 8 percent from the current year. The capital budget — which pays for construction projects, vehicles, and equipment — would increase just under 3 percent to nearly $2.5 billion. Much of that revenue is borrowed year to year, making up a portion of the county’s $15 billion debt.

Miami-Dade commissioners must approve the budget before it goes into effect Oct. 1, votes that will follow a pair of public hearings where residents, nonprofits, and interest groups typically press for changes that can shift money from one category to another. Commissioners also set the maximum property-tax rate this summer, locking in the revenue available for expenses in 2019.

Gimenez’s proposed 2019 budget is balanced, but it projects significant revenue shortfalls in future years for the county’s municipal budget in areas outside of city limits. That unincorporated area is absorbing the brunt of Miami-Dade’s new stepped-up school-security expenses, and the budget for that taxing district projects a $25 million deficit in 2020, rising to $57 million by 2024. Increased transit expenses covered by property taxes also push the countywide property tax into deficits, but not until 2023.

The budget also eliminates about 170 positions amid rising payroll costs and an expected cut in real-estate revenues from a proposed boost in the property-tax deduction that Florida grants primary residences. The extra $25,000 deduction is on the November statewide ballot. Even with positions being eliminated in county government, which is the second-largest employer in Miami-Dade’s economy, overall staffing is forecast to rise by about 400 to 27,577 positions in all.

Other notable changes and items in the budget include:

LIBRARIES Eliminates late fees for library books. The hope is that without small fees hanging over patrons’ heads, the library will be more likely to get the overdue materials back and keep more people using the system. Thanks to higher property values within the county’s special taxing district for libraries, the county has more money to spend. The proposed 2019 budget expands library hours by 30 minutes a day at almost every location, and moves the Coral Gables and Northeast Dade-Aventura branches to seven days.

TRANSIT SERVICES The current 2018 budget included service cuts for Metrobus. The 2019 budget extends those but doesn’t recommend more. Wait times for Metrorail aren’t addressed in the 2019 budget. They were supposed to shrink from an average of 7.5 minutes to 5 minutes in 2018, but county administrators delayed that goal amid ongoing maintenance issues and delays in getting new Metrorail trains on the tracks. The county expects to receive enough new Metrorail vehicles by September 2019 that 104 of the 136 vehicles will be new and to finish replacing 300 buses with modern compressed-natural-gas buses by then as well.

The 2019 forecast for transit anticipates more discouraging ridership numbers: Metrorail boardings are projected to decline 6 percent to 61,000 per day and bus boardings to drop 13 percent to 145,000 per day over current year-end projections. Miami-Dade would eliminate 90 full-time bus-driver positions in 2019 to capture savings from the 2018 cuts that eliminated some stops and outsourced some routes to a private operator.

TRANSIT PROJECTS Miami-Dade expects to pay about $19 million to transportation consultants in 2019 as part of the SMART Plan study — an ongoing analysis of transit options for six of the county’s busiest commuting routes. Miami-Dade is funding about half of the consultant expenses, with Florida covering the rest.

Long-range financial projections in the budget allocate $8.5 billion for SMART projects over 40 years — money that would have to cover construction, operations, and maintenance. That’s $2.2 billion more than was forecast just a year ago. Part of the boost comes from county commissioners requiring the budget office to pledge more property taxes to transit projects than the Gimenez administration wants, leading to budget deficits in later years.

WATER FEES Water fees would go up $3 a month, plus an additional $1 increase to the “stormwater utility fee” to fund improvements to canals and other flood-control infrastructure.

PARKS The county’s parks system receives a significant boost in property-tax funding in the 2019 spending proposal, with money from the countywide and unincorporated tax up 17 percent combined to about $79 million. The under-staffed department is upgrading 105 positions from part-time to full-time, and opening a new community center and pool facility at Oak Grove Park north of Miami. It also will spend $1 million planting trees countywide.

Even so, the department remains strapped for staff: The county estimates it needs an additional $5 million a year to hire 80 people to “address maintenance, programming, facilities and other operational needs.”

ANIMAL SERVICES Miami-Dade expects to complete a new spay-and-neutering clinic in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood in 2019.

SUPER BOWL Miami-Dade will pay the local committee organizing the 2020 NFL championship in Miami Gardens $2 million.

Miami-Dade had planned on putting aside $30 million in the 2019 proposed budget as a cushion against the looming cut in property-tax revenues by 2020, since voters are expected to pass the tax break. Jennifer Moon, the county’s budget director, said the reserve instead will be used to fund the extra policing by the county in public elementary schools in the unincorporated areas of the county.

The 2019 budget proposal describes a police force that needs more officers to keep pace with other agencies across the country. In the police department’s “unmet-needs” analysis, the budget says Miami-Dade would need to spend about $4 million a year on 90 police slots to “achieve current national averages as reported by the FBI.”

The budget doesn’t go into detail on the benchmark. A data website maintained by the FBI says the average county police agency has 2.7 officers for every 1,000 residents, and Florida reports Miami-Dade’s police agency in 2016 had 2.2 officers for every 1,000 residents outside of city limits.

Increased police spending after Parkland follows the county eliminating payroll positions across its police force. Miami-Dade expects to save about $16 million in 2019 by not filling vacant sworn and civilian positions at the police agency, according to the budget.

Miami-Dade also plans to hire 80 new officers to staff roving patrol units of response teams that are partially aimed at helping private and charter schools during a crisis, since only the public schools are getting assigned county officers. “We have a duty to protect all children,” Gimenez said. “We will be doing what we can to assure our children are protected.”

Those “priority response teams ... will respond to active shooter situations and mitigate any potential threats,” read a passage in the agency’s proposed 2019 budget. Another 16 positions will form the police department’s “Threat Management Section” to monitor social media for people seen as threats and intervene — including legal efforts “to remove the access of firearms from high risk persons.”

At his press conference, Gimenez, a former Miami paramedic who rose to fire chief and then city manager, said the response teams are what he wanted as an efficient way to respond to a shooting anywhere that a large number of people gather.

“For me, it’s not a question of if,” he said. “It’s a question of when.”

©2018 Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.