As storm clouds loomed over the West Kendall Regional Library Saturday, a young librarian stood outside the building’s doors passing out fliers to its patrons. An admitted political novice who gets her news from Twitter, Marion (not her real name) was letting the library regulars know what Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has planned for their branch.
Gimenez, after promising to fill the $15 million shortfall in the library budget and the $14 million shortfall in the Fire Department budget by raising the millage rate, turned tail on his own proposal. Instead, he now supports keeping the rate flat — a move which necessitates the closing of 22 of the County’s 49 library branches, six fire houses, and a lay-off of 242 library workers and 140 firefighters.
Adding insult to injury after an 8-4 Commission vote sealing the public branches’ fate, Gimenez declared, “the age of the library is waning.”
Not so fast, Marion thought.
“When the economy tanked in 2009, people lost their ability to pay for internet access and started coming to the library,” she said. “Miami-Dade Libraries served 6 million people last year. We do a thousand people a day at West Kendall Regional alone!”
Marion — clad in shorts, tank top, and an oversized, hand-scrawled poster declaring “We Have A Right To Libraries” — had no problem getting takers for her awareness-raising fliers. When patrons side-stepped, she sweetly asked, “Did you know this branch is set to close in October?”
“This library?” dozens of patrons replied incredulously.
What followed was encouraging and pretty consistent: shocked patrons engaged Marion in conversation, took a flyer, and promised to contact both Mayor Gimenez and Miami-Dade District 11 Commissioner Juan Zapata. Zapata voted against the millage increase along with seven others: District 5 Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, District 6 Commissioner Rebecca Sosa, District 7 Commissioner Xavier Suarez, District 8 commissioner Lynda Bell, District 10 Commissioner Javier Souto, District 12 Commissioner Jose Diaz, and District 13 Commissioner Esteban Bovo.
“Zapata? Oh that dude. I know him,” said one 15-year library employee who wandered outside and into Marion’s one-woman protest during his lunch break. “[Zapata] was serving hamburgers outside one day, and I noticed that our water supply door was open and that he had a hose hooked up to it and was stealing our water. I confronted him and made him stop. He sends a bus over here once a week for his free lunch program. Now he’s throwing us under it.”
“It’s all about what kind of place you want to live in,” said Miami-Dade Fire Lieutenant Myles Kaplan. “Do you want to live in a city like Detroit? Where you might wait 30 minutes for Fire Rescue? Or do you want first-class service like we’ve been able to provide until now?”
Kaplan, while careful to note he’s speaking as an individual and not for the Department, is happy to relate his frustrations with the local political process, a process that has seen his union make nearly annual concessions with the county, resulting in the loss of 10 percent of his salary and the understaffing of his department by 100 firefighters — not counting the 40 currently in training or the 100 more slated to be laid off in October.
“As a union, we have approached the county to get a fire fee, which would be about a dollar a household, so we don’t have to go through this every time property values go up and down,” Kaplan said. “Obviously, when times were good in the ’90s, we didn’t have this problem. When property values are high, budgets are great. The real estate crash has obviously impacted the Fire Department. What’s especially frustrating about this go-round is that things are improving. It’s not like we’re asking for a raise. Our contract is closed. This money is for our operating costs. The emergency doesn’t care what your budget is.”
Unfortunately for Kaplan and the citizens of Miami-Dade, Commissioner Suarez doesn’t see it that way. Suarez has waged a public battle against the “75 chiefs” of the Fire Department, maintaining that all of them earn more than $200,000 a year in “salary and benefits.” The county website, however, lists only two Department salaries over $200,000. In a recently published memo, Suarez declares that the supervisor to firefighter ratio in the Fire Department is 1.5 to 1. While that number may be accurate, he is including Lieutenants like Kaplan, who regularly jump into burning buildings.
“Sure I make a lot of money,” said Kaplan, who in 2012 made in excess of $96,000 including overtime. “I work my ass off for it. It’s not like I’m some banker who hits a bonus. This is a dangerous job. We get injured. I’ve torn my ACL. Our average life expectancy is 58 and a half. There’s a lot of stress involved.”
Kaplan points to last October’s parking garage collapse at Miami-Dade College to exemplify the type of emergency for which Miami-Dade’s Fire Department needs to be prepared. The incident saw 300 firefighters and 93 rescue units respond without an aid call to other departments. “I don’t think there’s another unit in the country that could have handled that by themselves,” Kaplan said. “We did that.”
It’s a level of service Kaplan sees the department struggling to maintain, given the new restrictions. “We’re just now starting rolling brownouts. Every station in the county will be subject to it. That means, if overtime is coming on one truck, we’re shutting it down and sending some of the crew elsewhere. So not only is your area less safe, so is the area that the truck is leaving to cover your area. And if that area gets a call, the area that we’re leaving behind to cover is less safe.
“We get between 200,000 and 250,000 calls per year,” Kaplan continued, mentioning a recent fire at the popular fast food joint Los Perros that could’ve been a lot worse. “What happens when we get another fire like the one at Los Perros last week? That was a big strip-mall fire. It took 15 trucks to put that out. And we move other units nearby just in case. Los Perros was gone, but we saved all the other stores. We might not have the same response time after October.”
The Commission still needs to ratify the vote before the budget is finalized, but when that’s slated to happen is somewhat nebulous. There was a meeting scheduled for July 30 on the Commission Calendar, but it was canceled today. Commissioner Suarez’s office told Salty Eggs that Sept. 4 is the new meeting date.
A “Library Rally” is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Concord Branch.
“What I don’t understand is why they just didn’t vote to raise the millage rate and then debate it,” Kaplan said. “If there was really no support, they could raise it one dollar and be done with it. As it stands, the millage rate can only be lowered, which means it can only get worse. That’s what’s so shitty about it. They’ve allowed no public debate.”
–By Tom Bowker