With $10 million to curb shootings, Miami-Dade commissioners fight over how to spend it

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In their first meeting after a deadly Memorial Day weekend, Miami-Dade County commissioners remained at odds Wednesday over how to spend nearly $8 million that the county mayor wants rushed to summer programs for teenagers with past legal troubles.

Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s “Peace and Prosperity Plan” is the centerpiece of her new administration’s response to gun violence rattling neighborhoods across the county, a trend that escalated over the weekend with a rash of shootings that left at least six dead.

Some commissioners want the money — a windfall from a recent naming-rights deal at the county-owned Miami Heat arena — used to target gun violence with surveillance cameras, license-plate readers and other police expenses instead of programs aimed at keeping troubled teens occupied during summer break.

“This is an anti-poverty plan in front of us,” said Commissioner Kionne McGhee, a former prosecutor who represents a South Miami-Dade district that saw an average of one shooting per day in 2020. “Give me a crime-fighting plan. ... If we don’t address the criminals, those criminals will shoot up the parks.”

The squabble captured a larger fight over how best to tackle the shootings that are a constant threat in some parts of the county. Coupled with that fight is a tug-of-war over county spending between Levine Cava and the county’s new commission chairman, Jose “Pepe” Diaz.

While Levine Cava and Commissioner Keon Hardemon won approval in March for spending the arena dollars on anti-violence programs, over the weekend Diaz announced McGhee’s committee would hold hearings next week on the Peace and Prosperity plan that was already the subject of a special commission meeting last month.

“We have this behemoth of a budget in Miami-Dade County we can use to invest in policing,” Hardemon said. “A hostile takeover over a plan that’s intended to address the least in our community is not what’s necessary.”

With Hardemon and others pushing for a vote on the Levine Cava plan Wednesday, Diaz said he would hold a special meeting sometime next week to approve or amend the $7.8 million proposal. Levine Cava said she wants authorization immediately to launch the effort, which centers around a summer-jobs programs for teenagers from high-crime areas who also are in the juvenile-justice system through past infractions. The program also would focus on teenagers with disabilities.

“There is no time to waste,” she said. “The moment is more urgent than ever.”

In March, commissioners agreed to spend the $90 million from the 19-year FTX Arena deal on programs aimed at reducing gun violence and boosting prosperity in neighborhoods where shootings are the highest. Final decisions on how to allocate the money require commission votes, an extended debate that’s now collided with public outcry over the Memorial Day weekend shootings.

Levine’s Cava plan spends most of the short-term FTX money earmarked for countywide expenses — $7 million through 2022 — on youth programs, including an expansion of the Parks Department’s Fit2Lead summer sessions.

The expanded program would focus on teenagers already in the juvenile-justice system, and provide them a mix of summer camp, counseling and placement in paying jobs and internships across the county. The new money would create slots for about 1,200 teenagers during the summer and after school through 2022.

The plan also includes other initiatives using existing county dollars, including $1 million for 2022 to beef up the police agency unit that monitors social media for clues of beefs and threats that can lead to shootings. Another $340,000 in FTX money would hire police analysts for social-media monitoring as well, with the new positions slated for the 2022 budget year that begins Oct. 1.

The agency’s 2021 budget lists $1 million in unfunded needs for new license-plate readers, and McGhee said he wanted dollars directed to that equipment immediately. Levine Cava said she supports spending more on license-plate readers if requested by the police department, which she supervises.

Freddy Ramirez, the county’s police director, told commissioners he supports the mayor’s plan and that it will help the agency’s efforts to tamp down on shootings this summer.

He said the county is working with city police agencies to increase patrols and information-sharing on recent shootings, which he described as part of a retaliation cycle from known bad actors who often don’t hide their plans to kill.

“It’s not going to be a bloody summer,” he said. “We know who these players are. They live on social media. We’ll be tracking social media.”

The FTX agreement in March calls for Levine Cava to propose a countywide anti-violence and anti-poverty plan for about 70% of the arena dollars, with the 13 commissioners able to spend the rest in the districts they represent. While the FTX dollars are new, commissioners opted to spend them on anti-violence programs rather than cover existing county expenses at the arena, including a yearly Heat subsidy of about $5 million.

In all, commissioners have about $10 million to spend through 2022 from the front-loaded FTX deal, which pays out $90 million over 19 years. Levine Cava said additional donations from FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange out of Hong Kong, and an allocation from Commissioner Eileen Higgins boosted the countywide plan to $7.8 million through 2022. The remaining FTX dollars may be spent by the other 12 commissioners in their districts.

Under the original Hardemon proposal, the countywide dollars would be spent in commission districts with the most shootings.

In support of the plan, Levine Cava’s administration laid out a spectrum of shootings using county crime statistics, with McGhee’s District 9 in South Miami-Dade seeing 364 non-fatal shootings in 2020 but fewer than 30 in six other districts. (The data isn’t complete, since it only includes shootings investigated by county police.)

In an interview, Diaz said the funds will be approved in time for summer programs to make use of the new dollars, since Parks money already pays for existing Fit2Lead slots. He said it’s a mistake to vote on the plan without a committee hearing.

“A lot of people just want to push something through,” he said. “I want to make sure it’s vetted out.”