Zika Takes Bigger Bite Out of Miami's Budget Than Expected

by | September 7, 2016

By Douglas Hanks

Miami-Dade expects to spend almost $10 million fighting Zika through the summer, a growing tab that's already complicating efforts to boost county funding for affordable housing and other last-minute budget sweeteners.

Florida offered $5 million to cover Miami-Dade's Zika costs, but county officials are bracing to absorb a much larger spending bite. The $10 million estimate covers estimated expenses only through Sept. 30, when the 2016 budget year ends, even as the county launches new rounds of aerial spraying on Miami Beach.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez outlined the projected 2016 costs in a memo to commissioners as they prepare for their first hearing on the 2017 budget Thursday afternoon. The administration typically accommodates last-minute spending requests from the 13-member board as part of the lobbying effort to secure the majority vote needed to implement the budget by Oct. 1.

Gimenez warned commissioners that Zika has drained significant amounts of flexibility from his budget writers.

"At this time, out of an abundance of caution, we do not have the flexibility to address requests for additional general fund support for other activities beyond what has been included in the Proposed Budget," Gimenez wrote. "Once federal and state aid is finalized and we have enough information to assess the impacts of our revenues, we will know the [effect on] our budget."

This Zika-infected budget season coincides with Gimenez's reelection campaign, which he had hoped would be over by the time commissioners met to consider his proposed 2017 spending plan. But after finishing with 48 percent of the primary vote last week, the incumbent was forced into a November runoff with school-board member Raquel Regalado.

The budget process offers Gimenez some advantages. His $7 billion spending plan includes a slight dip in property-tax rates, and earned praise from county commissioners when they endorsed the rates in July. Gimenez's budget includes a 4 percent raise for most county workers, expanded library hours and upgrades to the county's traffic-lights system. But Zika is also adding to the potential pitfalls for Gimenez during budget season, with two public hearings offering the chance for critics to highlight shortfalls in the plan.

While the immediate budget challenge comes from funding mosquito-control efforts, Zika could bring a much grimmer fiscal plague. Gimenez's memo raises the possibility of Zika scaring away tourists and sapping Miami-Dade of not only hotel-tax revenues, but also the sales-tax dollars earmarked for transit, the Jackson hospital system, homeless assistance and domestic-violence shelters. He said reserves could be tapped to address funding shortfalls for "priority issues for the community."

Zika's extra costs land during a year when rising property-tax revenues will mostly be spent on raises for thousands of county workers throughout Miami-Dade government, thanks to labor deals from 2014 that tied a 4 percent pay boost to real estate values exceeding county forecasts this year. In his memo, Gimenez said the county's General Fund -- a $1.8 billion pool of money made up mostly of property taxes -- should grow about $104 million in 2017. But the raise and growing healthcare costs meant just maintaining current service levels would cost the general fund about $123 million.

"We've made adjustments which will include holding positions vacant and other things we can do to make sure we balance the budget for this year," budget chief Jennifer Moon told commissioners at a committee meeting Tuesday. Earlier this year, commissioners passed a resolution reserving up to $10 million in excess property-tax dollars for assistance to affordable-housing developers in 2017.

But with the added employee costs, an extra $900,000 for counting petitions on a campaign-finance ballot item and Zika expenses, Moon said all of Miami-Dade's property-tax dollars will be accounted for heading into the 2017 budget. She held out hope that state Zika aid could create more breathing room, and suggested commissioners earmark for the housing fund any dollars that departments don't end up spending from their 2016 budgets.

For Zika, costs fall into three categories, said Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández. The largest involves contract workers hired to spray insecticide throughout the county but particularly in the two Zika hot spots in the Wynwood and South Beach areas that are subject to a federal travel advisory for pregnant women.

While Miami-Dade budgeted just $167,000 on mosquito-control contractors in 2016, including private planes, it expects to spend about $7 million on them through September. An advertising campaign centered around the "drain-and-cover" message for standing water is costing more than $1 million, obliterating a marketing budget of about $32,000 for the mosquito-control division. And while Miami-Dade planned to spend about $225,000 on insecticide in 2016, the tab is expected to hit $1.3 million.

Zika costs are mounting and have the potential to soar if the virus spreads to other areas of Miami-Dade. On Aug. 11, a week before locally transmitted Zika cases were found in South Beach, Gimenez wrote Gov. Rick Scott for state aid to offset $6 million in county expenses up until that point. At the time, Gimenez said Zika would probably wind up costing $8 million by October.

An advertising campaign centered around the "drain-and-cover" message for standing water is costing more than $1 million, obliterating a marketing budget of about $32,000 for the mosquito-control division.

Administration officials hope Florida will eventually cover Miami-Dade's entire Zika cost, with the possibility of Congress approving aid dollars. Miami-Dade is applying for the $5 million in assistance that Scott announced in late August for Miami-Dade. So far, there hasn't been any estimate on how much the county expects to spend once the new budget year begins Oct. 1. Gimenez's budget earmarks just $1.7 million for mosquito control's operating expenses, though administration officials call that a placeholder bound to be swamped by ongoing Zika expenses.

"The trend is we're spending more and more," Hernández said.

This post was updated to clarify that the $1.7 million mosquito-control budget for 2017 was for operating expenses.

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