Miami Beach

No cash payments, but Miami Beach will help workers access benefits during pandemic

With the city facing revenue shortages of its own, Miami Beach leaders on Wednesday rejected a union-led call to write checks to local service workers laid off during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the city administration said it will reassign full-time staffers at City Hall to offer assistance accessing state and federal unemployment benefits.

The $200,000 funding request, which included money toward establishing a private service center to help access benefits, was made by the hospitality union, UNITE HERE Local 355, and a union-affiliated training center.

“My recommendation would not be to spend $200,000 we don’t have,” City Manager Jimmy Morales said. “I’d love to keep our powder dry because I don’t know how long our war against COVID-19 will last.”

Miami Beach, which collected $88 million in resort tax revenues last year, has been losing $1.6 million per week in resort taxes — $3.6 million per week in total revenue — due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to city data.

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The city’s restaurants have been shut down to dine-in customers for more than a week. Hotels were ordered to go offline on Monday.

“We expect these losses to continue over the upcoming weeks and months until the COVID-19 emergency is behind us,” Morales wrote. “Like many cities across the country, we will be requesting an infusion of funding from the State and Federal Governments to help offset these dramatic revenue losses that are critical to providing continued services during this time.”

City leaders argued that it would not be financially wise — or necessarily effective to the largest swath of workers — to write a limited number of checks when the city’s finances are in question and the federal government is working on doling out payments to the entire country.

“We haven’t had any briefing yet on the state of our budget,” said City Commissioner David Richardson. “That concerns me a great deal that we’re looking at a proposal when we don’t even know our own financial condition.”

Morales declared a state of emergency in the city on March 12, and has unilateral authority to enact emergency measures or spend up to $100,000 at a time for any city needs during a state of emergency.

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The City Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to direct Morales to limit spending and instead ask full-time employees to form a makeshift benefits center and help workers who may not be computer savvy or for whom English is not a first language navigate the state and federal unemployment systems.

Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity has been swamped by tens of thousands of laid-off workers seeking unemployment benefits. Frustrated applicants have reported long wait times, website bugs and a general unpreparedness for the surge in requests.

“I’m an attorney and it took me well over an hour to navigate the [state] website,” said City Commissioner Michael Góngora, who said he has assisted two residents with accessing unemployment benefits. “It’s very difficult for these workers to be able to navigate the state and federal system to apply for the benefits they are qualified for.”

City Hall has not been immune to the job cuts. Scores of part-time and temporary workers manning positions in the city’s parks and beaches, and staffing the parking department, have been cut loose, Morales said.

The majority of the city’s budget goes to fund the fire department and police. But resort taxes make up about 10% of the city’s general fund, which means budget cuts are coming, Commissioner Ricky Arriola said.

“If you extrapolate that ... we’re looking at a $30-40 million fiscal hole in our budget,” said Arriola, who chairs the city’s finance board. “No amount of financial engineering is going to plug that hole. It’s going to be really ugly.”

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