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.

The slogan of El Expreso, printed on the front page of every issue, reads, "A free forum for every responsible opinion."

"He wasn't even there!" bellows Gonzalez-Goenaga when shown the article (he already had his own copy). "How can he say what happened? Jeez! This is outrageous."

His sense of fair play always at the forefront, Odio has not overlooked Miami's vibrant community of Spanish-language radio broadcasters. Confrontational personality Carlos D'Mant received a $1500 check, made out directly to him, in March 1994. Officially the money was a "donation" covering the cost of 100 tickets to a banquet honoring D'Mant's "contribution to the community via radio."

On-air personality Juan Amador of Radio Mambi collected on a series of $4000 "professional service" agreements with the city for assistance "with press releases, promotion, and coordinating of special events." In 1994, after receiving the final check on one contract, Amador received an additional $2000, without the commission's knowledge, for "work with the elderly."

Odio's cash subsidies, of course, aren't restricted to members of the Spanish-language press. Elena Carpenter, one of only two people on the masthead of the Coconut Grover (she's the general manager), sent Commissioner J.L. Plummer a letter in April 1996, in which she revealed her desire to pedal a bicycle from Orlando to Miami as a participant in the Florida AIDS Ride. "I would like to proudly wear the logo of the City of Miami for every mile of this challenging ride in the nationally televised event," she declared. After reminding Plummer of her position at her newspaper, she "hereby humbly request[ed] that the City of Miami sponsor me for this event by contributing the $1400 sponsorship requirement."

Plummer forwarded the note to Odio, who cut Carpenter a check. "I didn't see a conflict of interest because I didn't ask the city for the money as a journalist," Carpenter explains. "I asked it as an individual looking to help out a good cause. I didn't benefit from it. The fight against AIDS did."

Even public broadcasting has received help from Miami taxpayers. In March 1993, Victor De Yurre answered a WPBT-TV (Channel 2) pledge drive with a donation in his name -- but allowed Odio to pay for it with city money. According to Craig Brush, WPBT's vice president for marketing, the premium for the $1000 donation, which put De Yurre in the President's Club, was probably an umbrella festooned with the station's logo. De Yurre now says he doesn't recall if he kept the gift or donated it to the city. In fact, he can't even remember receiving a premium, which troubles Brush. "The umbrella clearly states, 'Channel 2 President's Club,'" Brush emphasizes, adding that he hopes the gift is somewhere around Dinner Key, where the station could use a little advertising.

Many charities depend on the support of government. For example, 62 percent of the budget of Catholic Charities is funded by the federal government, according to the American Institute of Philanthropy in St. Louis. The Jewish Federation relies on the feds for 59 percent of its budget. Metro-Dade County regularly donates to chambers of commerce and myriad other groups.

Miami is no different. The city's current operating budget lists grants to the Boys Club, Best Buddies, Ounce of Prevention, and other groups. Miami bureaucrats also supervise the distribution of millions of dollars in federal money to dozens of local nonprofits. All of this is doled out in plain view, and with city commission approval.

Still, there are always people who ask for more. The offices of every commissioner and the city manager are bombarded daily with letters and phone calls begging for assistance. "They just call us for everything," sighs Dulce Borges, Odio's assistant. "You'd be surprised. They feel that the City of Miami is the place to call for everything. They think of us as the big city and they just call us."

Judging from the stack of rejections on file in every commissioner's office, most requests for aid are denied. No surprise there, given Miami's rotten reputation as one of the poorest large cities in America. Cesar Odio's burden of management has only been exacerbated by that paucity of cash. Last year he was forced to cut $36 million from the city budget and slashed hundreds of jobs from the payroll. Officially there is very little money left over for random acts of kindness. Rejection letters went out to teachers who had to find some other way to pay for a school trip to Disney World, and to concert promoters who, despite asking nicely for a break, still had to pay full rent at the Manuel Artime Community Center in Little Havana. The reason for the denials is usually the same: "Severe budgetary restraints."

Budgetary restraints aside, Odio's spirit of generosity is sometimes frustrated by pesky laws. One example: In September 1995, the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church of Miami, located in the predominantly black West Grove, asked the city to consider placing an ad in the souvenir booklet published in honor of the church's centennial anniversary. But Odio was forced to turn them down, even though the ads sold for as little as $50 apiece. "Pleased be advised that due to a separation of church and state, the City of Miami cannot place an ad in the [booklet]," he wrote to the church's pastor.

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