Petty Cash

Miami city manager Cesar Odio loves to hand out taxpayer money to his friends. It's not under the table, but it is under the radar.

Like many people looking for money, Maria Elena Duran turned to the City of Miami. She headed a parents' support group at Shenandoah Middle School and wondered if the city might sponsor the school's gifted-student program. Her letter asking for help arrived on the desk of Commissioner Willy Gort in February 1995.

Gort reviewed her letter. He receives hundreds of such requests for money every year, so he's become pretty skilled at spotting bogus appeals; this didn't seem to be one of them. He attached a brief note of approval and forwarded the letter up the city's bureaucratic chain of command.

Soon thereafter it landed on the desk of Cesar Odio.
Miami's city manager is the benevolent dictator over what the city refers to as "small purchases." The city code allows him to spend up to $4500 at a crack without the guidance, approval, or even the knowledge of the city commission. And while $4500 may be chump change in a city budget of $260 million, Odio knows that it is plenty of money to a concerned parent of a bright middle schooler, or to a soccer team in search of uniforms, or to a charity needing a handout.

Odio's small-purchase powers may soon evaporate, though, now that crotchety Joe Carollo has ascended to the mayor's office. The new mayor does not hide his opposition to Odio's independent disbursement of taxpayer money, and he refuses to recognize the manager's selfless generosity, or his genius for creative financing methods. By September, when a new commissioner is elected to fill Carollo's old seat, Odio might very well be out on the streets.

"Let me say this to you," harrumphs the mayor. "The impression I have gotten from what many people have told me is that this [small-purchase ability] has been used, overall, as a private piggy bank of the manager -- that he uses this money to promote himself and to win favors with different groups, different organizations, and different individuals."

Obviously Carollo has little appreciation for Odio's commitment to public service, for the fact that over the past decade the manager has made all his decisions about small purchases privately, away from the public eye. Miami's "good gray man" is simply too modest to seek publicity, no matter how much it might help his career. (He even refused to speak to New Times concerning this article.)

So New Times decided to give him the credit he deserves. We obtained and examined copies of approximately 550 checks for $4500 or less issued by Odio from January 1993 through April 1996. Mayor Carollo's respect for the manager is certain to skyrocket when he learns that, despite a fiscal crunch, Odio always found some way to help a Bay of Pigs veteran or a former Cuban political prisoner in need. The virtuous Cuban American National Foundation, headed by Odio's good friend Jorge Mas Canosa, was never left empty-handed, and neither were certain worthy local journalists.

Unfortunately, after all that generosity, there was no money left for Maria Elena Duran's program at Shenandoah Middle School. In a letter to Duran, Odio stated that "due to severe budgetary restraints" the city was unable to fund her request. As much as the manager surely would have liked to help her, the city had only so much money. Besides, on the day Duran's plea arrived at Gort's office, Odio had already spent his wad on seats to a Cuban American National Foundation benefit.

Before going any further, let's clarify something. New Times does not possess literally every city check for $4500 or less. That would amount to an awful lot of checks for an awful lot of mundane things required to keep the municipal machinery running smoothly, things such as $10.68 bags of mulch.

In assembling a portrait of Odio's spending savvy, we concentrated on checks drawn from a category of the city budget known as Special Programs and Accounts. This is the area where the city stashes the money it uses to pay employee benefits, donations to charity, and miscellaneous expenses. It is also where the city stockpiles cash for emergencies.

The emergency reserve account, in the hands of a resourceful city manager, can be an amazing thing. Nearly one million dollars is set aside to cope with the next nightmare hurricane or civil "disturbance" or infestation of blood-sucking chupacabras. But the money can also be used to solve more routine problems. All it takes is a reasonably flexible definition of the word emergency.

Surely there was an urgent need to acquire plants to decorate the podiums when the U.S. Conference of Mayors convened in Miami this past July. Records show that Odio hurriedly paid Costa Nursery Farms $552 from the emergency fund. Prompt service was necessary, and Costa got the job done. And no wonder. Its president, Jose Costa, is a member of Odio's rowing club.

Odio faced down another emergency on March 9, 1995, when he contributed to the Theodore Gibson Golf Tournament. Disaster struck again on May 3, 1995, when he purchased a table at a banquet honoring Metro-Dade Commissioner Art Teele. About a month after that check, yet another crisis; Odio hastily shuttled $1000 to the Dade County League of Cities to cover the entrance fee at the First Annual Mayor's Shotgun Golf Tournament.

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