It is that time of the year again, Miami-Dade County’s proposed budget hearings are taking place on September 7th and 19th, and once again progressive organizations and community advocates are conducting trainings, generating talking points, preparing letters and statements, and sending representatives to budget town halls to ask tough questions and make demands for more community-centered investment. Why, one might ask, are these people and organizations doing all that work? The answer is that a budget, regardless of whether it is a household budget, a county budget, or a national budget, should be a clear reflection of goals and priorities. Therefore the more important question is whether or not our county budget reflects the goals and priorities of our community.
In order to make sense of the county’s budget, and determine whether or not it reflects our community’s goals and priorities, let’s think for a moment about an individual family’s budget. What are the main priorities of any given family? For starters, having a roof over their heads seems to fulfill a basic need shared universally. Food also seems to be at the top of the list, since we are not able to live without it. Other top priorities might include transportation – to and from school, work, the grocery store, the hospital, etc.- education, health care, safety and quality of life, savings, and more. Once the most vital needs have been met we can start allocating funds to cover other aspects of life, such as travel, entertainment, home renovations, etc. Clearly there will be differences among different families, but it’s pretty safe to assume everyone will first cover basic needs.
With of all that in mind, is our county’s budget meeting the basic needs of the Miami-Dade community?
According to Adrian Madriz, SMASH‘s Executive Director, [Housing] Affordability is the defining struggle of the moment. In his article, he passionately argues that the housing crisis is disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations, including low-income families and homeless youth, and that we need more innovative solutions, such as the use of low-cost pre-fabricated modular units -or shipping containers- and a Community Land Trust, which Miami-Dade County Commissioners have been reluctant to embrace. Madriz isn’t alone in his assessment, according to a Sun Sentinel article published earlier this year, the South Florida affordable rent crisis is the worst in the nation. Quoting a report released by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, the article reveals that over a third of South Florida’s residents are severely burdened, meaning that they’re spending more than half their income on housing; For extremely low-wage earners that often leads to homelessness and could be life-threatening.
In addition to SMASH, other South Florida organizations are also of the opinion that our County’s budget is not making housing a priority, and are asking for more investment to deal with the crisis. Some of those groups include People Acting for Community Together (PACT), Miami Homes for All, and the South Florida Community Development Coalition; They are calling on their partners and the community at large to turn out at the September 7th budget hearing to push for 10 million dollars from general revenue for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
Another priority the County’s budget seems to have neglected is that of economic development, despite being named one of its four strategic areas of investment. As noted by Stephany Rojo on her article Small Business Interests in the County Budget, the County is only allocating 3 percent of its $7.4 billion budget for Fiscal Year 17-18 to economic development, despite the fact that Miami’s small businesses rank 39th of 40 metro areas in the U.S. in terms of business development. Rojo, a Senior Loan Consultant for Accion East, points out that many minorities start businesses as a way to counteract the disenfranchisement they suffer due to lack of access to social capital, a poor educational system, a broken public transit system, and systemic racism. But the problem is not lack of initiative; Miami ranks first in the nation in number of new startups and small business activity, the problem is that those new businesses are not scaling. She argues the County should invest more in programs and tools, and in more access to capital and credits, as a way to help Miami enterprises prosper in the long run.
And speaking about public transit as determinant of economic development, is our County budget prioritizing it? According to the Transit Alliance Miami to answer is no; As they point out, “… the proposed FY 17-18 budget calls for up to $25 million in budget cuts to Miami-Dade County transit services. The results of these cuts will be reduced transit service hours, route eliminations, poorer frequencies, and compromised maintenance at a time when increased and improved transit service is critical.” The Alliance is therefore leading a campaign to turn people out at the hearing to speak against the proposed transit cuts.
In order to better prepare ourselves to demand more investment in community-centered priorities like the ones mentioned above, the Social Justice Table (SJT) and the Miami Climate Alliance prepared a series of budget trainings, the last of which is taking place this Wednesday, August 30th. The trainings were designed to accomplish three things: 1) help people understand and better navigate our county’s budget; 2) generate talking points that reflect our priorities as a community; and 3) prepare and practice our 2-minute statement for the budget hearing(s).
It doesn’t matter if your priorities are seemingly different from the ones described above since, as noted by the contributing writers, affordable housing is tied to the safety and well-being of vulnerable communities, just as education and access to capital are determinants of economic development which, in turn, can also be a measure of efficient public transit systems. The bottom line is that unless and until we organize ourselves to play a meaningful, proactive role in our county’s budget process, the way our public funds are spent will not reflect our community’s priorities, and basic needs will continue to go unmet. Let’s not let that happen!