In final budget votes, Miami boosts spending for Virginia Key Beach by $300,000

·3 min read
Daniel A. Varela/dvarela@miamiherald.com

Miami commissioners added $300,000 to the budget for the agency that manages the Virginia Key Beach, an expense advocates argued will improve maintenance of the historical Black beach park and help administrators plan for the construction of a long-awaited museum.

The 3-2 vote was the most debated topic during an hours-long budget hearing Thursday evening that saw commissioners approve an overall $1.5 billion spending plan for the city’s operations, in addition to smaller budgets for semi-autonomous city agencies such as the Virginia Key Trust. The new budget year begins Oct. 1.

The approved budget is about $200,000 higher than last year. Commissioners lowered the property tax rate, minimizing the increase on the average homeowner’s tax bill and eliminating a little more than $7 million in tax revenue, according to a city estimate.

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The Virginia Key Trust came under scrutiny from some commissioners who thought the agency was spending too much on salaries. In a previous budget hearing, commissioners Joe Carollo and Alex Díaz de la Portilla cited findings of an unfinished audit when they criticized the Trust’s management.

On Thursday, the Trust’s chairman, N. Patrick Range II, acknowledged the agency could work on managing spending on salaries, but he rejected any suggestion that there was serious mismanagement or waste at the Trust. He also noted that the Trust has not yet responded to the audit’s findings.

Range, grandson of Miami’s first Black commissioner, Athalie Range, said the budget increase the Trust sought allows the agency to hire park staffers and one education specialist to develop a curriculum for the as-of-yet undeveloped Black history museum.

He also noted that beach park has no city parks department staffers on the island, forcing the agency to fend for itself.

“One thing that I think would alleviate half of our payroll would be if we have support from the parks department, as the largest park in the city of Miami,” Range said.

“That’s fair,” Díaz de la Portilla said.

The approved increase brings the Trust’s overall spending plan to about $1.6 million.

Commission Chairwoman Christine King, the only Black commissioner and representative for the city’s poorest neighborhoods, moved to accept the Trust’s funding request and pledged to work with Range and the Trust staff to look for ways to tamp down spending while investing in the work that needs to be done to unlock county dollars that are available for museum construction.

“I would like to say that it is a shame, it is a shame on the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County as a whole that we do not have a museum that’s representative of our African culture,” King said.

King defended the Trust’s request for more money, arguing that it takes personnel to run the park and develop a plan for the museum — the kind of plan that county officials would need before releasing about $20 million in voter-approved bond dollars for the museum’s construction.

Carollo said he could not support the budget increase but wanted to work with the Trust’s leadership to trim fat in their spending. Díaz de la Portilla said he could not vote for a plan where more than half of the budget pays for salaries. In a separate pledge, he committed to put $150,000 from his district fund toward construction of the museum, emphasizing that he wants to see a museum built, not more staff for a Trust without the facility.

Carollo and Díaz de la Portilla voted against the budget increase. King and commissioners Ken Russell and Manolo Reyes voted in favor.

The larger budget passed with minimal debate. Activists asked commissioners for a $150,000 increase to the city’s resilience department to fund more positions, but the commission did not add the jobs. Russell said he hoped the resilience department, which is a standalone working group for the first time in two years, would evaluate its needs and ask for the additional funding halfway through the budget year if they need it.