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Monday, October 19, 2009

Some straight talk about how Miami-Dade Commissioners use their discretionary funds, and the ethically-curious slippery slope Comm. Sally Heyman increasingly finds herself occupying

First, some necessary predicates to better understand the following blog post.

I think Matthew Haggman is one of the best reporters and most valuable assets of the Miami Herald.
If people like him ever start bailing out, it'll really be all over but the shouting.

I also think Carlos Alvarez as County mayor is a tremendous disappointment to tens of thousands of people, and his pathetic attempt to try to show-up Haggman recently at one of his press conferences only showed how far he's fallen.

He deserves to be recalled from office
and just may self-destruct before it's all over.
His political future is in such a death spiral that a black hole would be a relief.

My comments follow the article.

---------------
Miami Herald
http://www.miamiherald.com/460/story/1288062.html

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY

Miami-Dade commissioners sitting on millions in taxpayer funds

Miami-Dade commissioners are in control of $5 million in unspent money, angering groups facing budget cuts and watchdogs who say the kitty should be taken out of politicians' hands.

By Matthew Haggman and Jack Dolan

October 18th, 2009
As Miami-Dade County fires hundreds of workers and slashes funding for nonprofit groups, county commissioners are sitting on a mountain of cash and are determined not to give it up.
Chairman Dennis Moss controls a stockpile of more than $1 million. Commissioner Sally Heyman has a stash totaling $955,064. Commissioner Jose "Pepe'' Diaz holds $548,651, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro $479,168 and Commissioner Katy Sorenson $353,691.
In all, the 13 commissioners have more than $5 million in unspent cash from last fiscal year at their disposal -- surplus office funds carried over into the new budget year. Some have carried over unspent office funds for years, building the money pile.
All other taxpayer-funded county departments, including the mayor's office, return unspent money to the county general fund to be budgeted the following year. Yet commissioners, who approve every dollar of the county budget, keep the excess while still giving themselves a new, fully-funded budget each year.
The practice has allowed commissioners to amass vast sums that they alone control and can use -- or not -- with few restrictions.
While the $5 million is a fraction of the $444 million budget shortfall the county just faced, it sits untapped at a time when commissioners have implored county administrators to search under every proverbial seat cushion for extra dollars. On Tuesday, for instance, commissioners instructed staffers to find $1.3 million somewhere in county coffers to avoid cutting elderly social service programs.
Yet, during the recent budget debates, commissioners made no mention of the individual pots of taxpayer money they've accumulated.
"I am stunned,'' said Catherine Penrod, CEO of Switchboard of Miami, a suicide prevention nonprofit that, like many agencies, saw its county funding cut 30 percent. "It's hard for me to believe that it is OK to stockpile money like this when there is such a great need out there.''
Social service groups and union leaders say the surplus money should be rolled into the county's general fund and reallocated to community groups struggling to survive the crippling economic downturn, used to save jobs, or to bolster next year's budget. Some suggest it be returned to cash-strapped taxpayers through a small, but symbolic, reduction in the tax rate.
Stan Hills, president of the county firefighters union, looked at the list of commissioners' surpluses and said, "Any money that's available should be used for core services that have been cut. We have response time problems all over the county. I'm sure the police could use the money, too.''
Commissioners show little inclination to part with taxpayer money some regularly call their own. Nor are they willing to let others decide what to do with it -- saying, if anything, the reserves show they have been frugal.
"I will determine how the monies are spent in my budget, not The Miami Herald, not the media,'' said Chairman Moss. His unused fund is the largest, in part because Moss controls more duties as commission chair, including the offices of protocol and media.
"This is the way it's been done historically, the way it's done now, and the way it will be done in the future,'' he said.
Last year, commissioners budgeted themselves $930,000 each -- which is slated to be reduced by 10 percent this year -- to pay the rent and utility bills at their district offices, and to pay salaries for as many as 10 personal staffers. Top aides can earn in excess of $100,000 per year.
By contrast, Florida State Representatives get an annual budget of $29,784 to pay the rent and utilities in their district offices. Each representative is allowed two staffers, who typically earn less than $40,000 and are paid through a state account the elected state leaders don't personally control.
State representatives can't stash away money from the office budget and carry those surpluses over from year to year.
Across Florida, allowing politicians to carry over unspent office funds is unusual, said Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, the Tallahassee-based government watchdog group. Extra public dollars typically revert back to the government treasury, not kept by individual politicians.
"These are not commissioners' personal funds; these funds come out of the sweat of hard-working taxpayers,'' Calabro said.
Miami-Dade Commissioners previously came under fire for granting themselves $727,500 each in discretionary funds to personally dole out to district constituents and businesses, an unusual political payout that helps commissioners curry favor with voters. That money, which is being reduced this year by more than $400,000 per commissioner, is separate from the office accounts.
Under Dade's rules, commissioners are able to distribute their surplus office money to community groups, or even other commissioners who have blown their own budgets.
This past year, for example, Commissioner Natacha Seijas dipped into her surplus to transfer $14,811 to Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who overspent her $930,000 office budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
Neither Seijas, who has accumulated $449,257, nor Jordan responded to interview requests.
Such transfers can raise questions about transparency and accountability, said Tony Alfieri, director of the University of Miami's Center for Ethics and Public Service.
When one commissioner bails out a fellow commissioner, said Alfieri, it creates a risk of favor trading with scant public monitoring.
Heyman -- sitting on nearly a million dollars in unspent taxpayer money -- said she saw the current fiscal crisis coming years ago and has been diligently saving her office funds, clipping coupons, paying her office staff less than other commissioners and eschewing fancy caterers at community events she hosts.
"Costco sheet cakes are a hell of a lot cheaper than Publix sheet cakes,'' she told a reporter asking about her surplus.
She said she'll use the money to host charity fundraisers and other community activities she says are not meant to win political favor. "When I'm underwriting a walk for the blind, I don't ask if the blind people live in my district,'' Heyman said.
Barreiro, also carrying over a weighty sum, pitched his actions as a benefit to taxpayers. ``I've been frugal,'' he said. "I'm not one who thinks that all the money that has been budgeted should be spent this year.''
Barreiro added that he would give some of the money to nonprofit social service agencies ``as projects warrant.''
Diaz said now may well be the perfect time to earmark the money.
"I believe it is important to maintain reserves in anticipation of a rainy day and, as you know, right now it is pouring,'' Diaz said. "If there is a proposal regarding the use of these dollars to save jobs or keep programs going, I will review and consider such proposals.''
To which TaxWatch's Calabro responded: "A rainy day fund would be in the treasury, not in their personal patronage pot. Frankly, this is a practice that should be eliminated. It is inappropriate in good times, and clearly out of line now.''

-----------

CBS4's Stephen Stock and the I-Team did several great stories on the questionable spending practices of the Commission and their massive discretionary accounts back in the spring.
As the best investigations tend to do, they raised even more questions about the the royal bubble that the Commissioners have created around themselves, and the shallow, self-serving nature of their responses to
honest questions and criticisms.

http://cbs4.com/iteam/investigation.carry.over.2.954322.html
http://cbs4.com/iteam/commission.mudget.broward.2.957878.html
http://cbs4.com/iteam/iteam.tax.spending.2.955862.html

http://cbs4.com/iteam/miami.dade.commission.2.907201.html

http://cbs4.com/iteam

Given that the Herald and the TV station are supposed to be "news partners,' you'd think they'd have figured out a way to mention this past fact-finding, or at least have links to those I-Team reports on the Herald's website for this particular article.
But they don't.


Maybe I'm old fashioned, but as I told a Channel 4 exec in February when I was down at the station, in my opinion, it's NOT really a team if they refuse to ever give you credit for the hard work you've already
done
.
This is precisely the sort of important story that the newspaper and station ought to be collaborating on if they were a real team, in order to bring enough resources -and pressure- to bear on the M-D
county commissioners. http://www.miamidade.gov/commiss/

But instead, the Herald acts like they're the only ones prospecting in that particularly rich vein of the mine, and yet bring nothing new to this story.

Well, other than the insolent attitude of the commissioners finally emerging in print in ways that are far different from what they were when they were being interviewed on camera by Channel 4.
Imagine that!

 
Based on what I've written before in my blog on in emails to some of you, the fact that, as proven yet again in this article, Chairman Donald Moss is an insufferable horse's ass with no concept of public good or perception is NOT exactly Breaking News to me, even if it may be to you.

He personally, and his ilk, are precisely one of the reasons why life in South Florida is the way it is -and so much less than it ought to be.

I've generally been ambivalent-to-supportive of Sally Heyman, but if I were her, I might start re-thinking my role of playing the great public curmudgeon, the ethical moralizer of everyone else's actions and motives, all
while sitting on nearly a million dollars of taxpayers funds you're personally using as a political slush fund to engender political support and positive PR spin,
http://www.miamidade.gov/district04/home.asp

There are a lot of rich and successful people living in District 4, stretching as it does from just south of me in Aventura to Miami Beach, people who ARE pro-reform and have both the means and the issues to
politically decapitate Sally Heyman in an election campaign, if they were so motivated.
Up 'till now they haven't been.

They have the collective ability to put money into a savvy and well-choreographed media political campaign the likes of which this area has seldom seen before, including a pro-reform TV campaign that highlights
with great clarity and specificity the disparity between what Heyman publicly says and what she actually does.

And uses that as a springboard for county-wide ballot issues that can go right at the heart of the bureaucratic beast.

Right now, they can't do anything directly, per se, about the glut of Barbara Jordans, Dorrin Rolles and
Natacha Seijas littering the South Florida landscape like glossy nighclub cards on Miami Beach sidewalks,
but they can make an example of the person on the commission who is supposed to be representing them in an ethical and scrupulous fashion.
And they can enjoy themselves while doing so.

Trust me, just because the Beth Reinhards of the world don't have the sense to see the larger picture, or to contact some of these people I'm talking about, to sound them out, is of no real consequence.
Frankly, given her reportorial style, she likely wouldn't know until someone else tells her, after-the-fact, perhaps thru a PR release, which, sadly, seems to be how far too much gets into both the Herald and Sun-Sentinel these days.

That they don't care what Reinhard thinks -and neither should you, if you really want to know the truth- should cheer you up straight-away.

Sally Heyman's past hard work and good intentions will count for very little when and IF she is increasingly perceived as someone who has made the fatal political mistake of taking things for granted and overstaying her welcome.

So much so, that she became part of the larger problem and not part of the solution.
Given the great resources available and perfectly capable of sending her packing, toute-de-suite, Heyman's rather smarmy self-justifying comments here can only be interpreted one way.

Christmas just came early for those who believe Miami-Dade County can and ought to be more than just a self-serve ATM for second-rate politicos eager to create slush funds out of taxpayers funds.

And Sally Heyman has just presented them with yet another gift-wrapped issue to tie around her neck like an anchor.

For those interested in real reform and accountability, not just pretend reform, Heyman's growing track record of hypocrisy here is the gift that keeps on giving.

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