Why Local Government Budgets Matter
Local government budgeting may look unremarkable, but these processes offer a rare opportunity for the public to weigh in on many policy priorities at once - priorities that will be carried through in government operations for at least a year.
These processes can vary by local government, so we’ll focus on Miami-Dade County’s budget process as an example.
Why single out Miami-Dade County?
Miami-Dade is the most populous county in Florida, the seventh-most populous in the U.S., with an annual budget of approximately $8 billion. (For context, If you could put away $100,000 per year, it would still take you 80,000 years to save $8 billion. With $8 billion, you could also give every person in Miami-Dade County close to $3,000 each.)
Miami-Dade County’s size and operating budget, coupled with its “strong mayor” form of government, give it enormous potential to adopt and implement policies with far reaching consequences.
More on Miami-Dade County:
Originally just called “Dade County,” it was created on January 18, 1836, under the Territorial Act of the United States. At the time of its creation, Dade County included the land that now contains Palm Beach and Broward counties, together with the Florida Keys from Bahia Honda Key north as well as the land of present-day Miami-Dade County.
3 steps to budget approval
There are three public meetings of the Board of County Commissioners where you can have a say in Miami-Dade County’s budget process:
A meeting to set the millage rates, usually in July
A first meeting to approve the proposed budget, usually in September
A second meeting to approve and adopt the proposed budget, also usually in September
Step 1: Approval of millage rates
Stay with us here, because this meeting is very important and under-attended. It sets the size of the pie, so to speak, for the entire budget.
In short, it determines a substantial percentage of the amount of revenue Miami-Dade County will be able to collect.
So, what are “millage rates?” It’s basically a property tax rate. Property taxes make up close to 30%-40% of Miami-Dade County’s budget in a given year so these represent an important source of revenue.
More on “Millage” and Property Taxes:
Millage rates are used to calculate local property taxes. The rate represents the amount per every $1,000 of a property's assessed value. In other words, a mill is one one-thousandth of a dollar, and in property tax terms is equal to $1.00 of tax for each $1,000 of a property value assessment. 29 mills, therefore, is equal to $29 for every $1,000 of assessed value, or 2.9%.
The meeting that sets millage rates also decides how much funding is available overall for government programs, services, and infrastructure.
Step 2: Approving a budget
The size of the pie was set in step 1. Now it’s time to slice up that pie.
From this point forward, any budget increases favoring one item will have to be offset by decreases from other items in the budget.
Miami-Dade County prepared the graphic above to give residents a sense of how the Fiscal Year 2018-2019 budget was broken down.
The top 3 expenditures (in essence, Miami-Dade’s top 3 priorities) were:
“Public Safety” as handled by the departments of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Fire Rescue, Judicial Administration, Juvenile Services, Medical Examiner, Office of the Clerk, Police
“Neighborhood & Infrastructure” as handled by the departments of Animal Services, Solid Waste Management, Water and Sewer
“Transportation” as handled by the departments of Aviation, Seaport, Transportation and Public Works
These priorities accounted for ⅔ of the almost $8 billion budget. Draft budget documents that spell out these priorities are usually released online in July. Likewise, town hall (large-scale Q&A) meetings in neighborhoods across the county may be held in August or early September.
Not only is the size of the budget pie set by the first budget approval meeting in September, but most of the budget has also already been slated for required expenditures like salaries and public safety.
That leaves only a few hundred million dollars to be allocated. So showing up to the first budget hearing in September still matters.
Step 3: Approving (again) and adopting a budget
Since the budget is adopted through a local law called an ordinance, it must be voted on at two public meetings to come into effect. This second budget hearing is usually held in the later half of September.
It’s possible that there may have been changes to the proposed budget between the first and second hearings. If so, those should be available as online, in a memo detailing any and all changes, and also as part of the Board of County Commissioners’ meeting agenda packet. If the proposed budget is approved without any changes at this meeting, the new budget will go into effect in October.
Obviously, we really simplified the steps in the budget process. Miami-Dade County is a fairly large government and its departments work year-round to prepare business plans and funding requests. Likewise, the county’s mayor has a significant role to play by presenting the initial budget in July, including the proposed millage rates. Still, you should have a decent idea of the best opportunities for public participation.
When you show up
When you go to speak at each budget hearing, you’ll have to fill out a speaker card. Once you’re called to speak, you’ll have two minutes to address the commissioners (including sharing your name and address).