By Chuck Strouse
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The airlines themselves pay the county several types of fees. First, they pay rent based on the amount of space they take up in the terminal. The airlines also pay landing fees, which are currently $1.34 per 1000 pounds of a plane's gross weight. Every time a DC-10 (which weighs about 250,000 pounds) lands at MIA, the airline has to pay the county more than $300.
Twice a year the county calculates how much money is coming into the airport. If it isn't enough to cover anticipated expenses, landing fees are increased. (Conversely, if the county is generating more money than needed, it's supposed to decrease landing fees.) Every time the county raises landing fees by a penny, an additional $300,000 a year from the airlines is added to the coffers. Ultimately, these fees are passed on to the consumer as part of ticket prices.
County administrators are frustrated that money generated at the airport can be used only for aviation-related expenses. Commissioners can't take funds left over from a year's worth of landing fees and spend it on police in Liberty City or a day-care center in West Kendall. But given a bit of managerial leeway, department insiders allege, county administrators have been able to create jobs for politically connected individuals, whether those jobs are actually needed or not. "They are making all of these worthless jobs, and the airlines end up paying for it," says a senior aviation official, who asked not to be identified. Eventually, he warns, the airlines, which pay more than $40 million a year in landing fees, are going to realize they are being duped. MIA is already considered one of the more expensive airports for airlines to use; if costs continue to increase, he adds, the major airlines could threaten to reduce the number of flights into Miami. If that occurs, he predicts, the airport will be forced to reduce its budget. "When we need to cut, we're not going to be cutting these political ne'er-do-wells," he says, "we're going to be cutting services."
Another very real and more immediate concern is the possibility of an American Airlines strike -- nearly half the flights through MIA are that one carrier's. County officials say that if there is a strike that lasts more than 60 days, they will have to begin laying off employees. "Who do you think will get sent home?" the aviation official questions. "We'll end up laying off people who work hard but don't have any political friends to protect them."
In addition to relatives and friends, commissioners also send members of their personal staffs to the aviation department, often securing for them higher paying jobs as either a reward or, as is more often the case, as a way of getting the individual off their own payrolls. "It's getting out of hand," adds another aviation department manager. "There are a lot of people who work at the airport who are extremely disillusioned by what has been occurring in recent years. The airport really has become a dumping ground."
Manuel Ramos started working for the county on May 2, 1994, as an aide to Commissioner Pedro Reboredo. His starting salary, according to county records, was set at $18,000 a year. Six weeks later Reboredo gave Ramos a $12,000 raise, taking him to an annual salary of $30,000. Three months later Reboredo increased Ramos's salary to $36,000 and a month after that gave him another $6000 raise, bringing the total to $42,000.
Less than a year after joining Reboredo's staff, Ramos, who was then 48, became gravely ill and required open heart surgery. But rather than maintain Ramos on his own payroll, Reboredo, who at the time was chairman of the county commission committee that oversaw the airport, transferred Ramos to the aviation department, where he assumed the title of special projects administrator and was given yet another raise, which brought his salary to nearly $49,000. Special projects administrator is a generic title, which allows the aviation department to assign whatever duties they want to the employee.
The same day Ramos was transferred to the airport, Vidal took the unusual step of placing him on administrative leave for six weeks, which meant that while Ramos was in the hospital he would continue to be paid but wouldn't have to use any of his annual sick leave or vacation time. While such a move may seem compassionate, it sent another message to Ramos's fellow airport employees. "That told us he was being treated differently," one employee says. If it was someone who didn't have a connection to a commissioner and therefore the county manager, the employee continues, he would not have been given such an advantage. "If I wanted to guarantee that I was going to be protected if I was ever seriously ill, I'd have to pay for disability insurance," the person notes. Ramos, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is back to work at the airport, assigned to the maintenance department. His current salary is $53,600.
Matias Farias was hired as Commissioner Bruce Kaplan's chief of staff in January 1994, with a starting salary of $48,000 and an additional $6500 a year in car allowance. Two years later Farias, who was 58, suffered a heart attack. At the time, Kaplan says, he decided that he could no longer keep Farias on his staff because the stress of the job was too great for Farias to handle.