The Dumping Ground

When family members or cronies need a job, Dade county politicians drop them off at the airport

So Farias was transferred to the airport and given a $14,000 a year raise and a new title: Southcom logistics coordinator. Southcom refers to the Southern Command, which is the United States's military headquarters for operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Currently Southcom is located in Panama but will be relocated to Dade County. Farias, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, is now responsible for acting as a liaison between the county and the military during the move, which will take place this summer.

Gary Dellapa admits that it would not normally be the role of the aviation department to act as the conduit between the county and the military on a project such as this. "Basically, we created that title for him," says Dellapa. "That came out of discussion between my staff and the county manager's staff over finding a viable role for the colonel when he came over to the airport last year." After Southcom completes its move, Dellapa says, they will have to find or create another position for Farias to fill.

In July 1993, Sherrie Harris went to work for Commissioner James Burke as an aide, earning a salary of $26,000 a year, which over the next couple of years grew through raises to $32,000. But in May 1996, Harris fell ill and was placed on unpaid medical leave for nearly a year. Last month she felt she was ready to return to work. "Commissioner Burke told me I was welcome to come back to his office," Harris says. "But I wanted a job out of the political arena, so they found a position they thought would fit me out at the airport."

The 41-year-old Harris was given the new assignment of airport information guide; among other duties, she provides tours of the facility to the general public. Harris took a pay cut, to $29,400. But even at that salary, she was making far more than any of her fellow tour guides, whose starting salary is only slightly more than $17,000.

When Harris showed up for her first day of work at the airport, she remembers, her new boss, Lauren Gail, warned her that her co-workers would be upset if they discovered how much she made. "She told me there would probably be resentment against me," Harris says. "And she made it perfectly clear that I was going to have to work hard to prove myself." Harris states it was never her intention to cause a problem by relocating to the airport. "I had no idea what the salaries were for the other guides," she says. By the end of her first day, Harris realized she was not physically ready to return to work. She is back on medical leave.

Manny Ramos, Matias Farias, and Sherrie Harris all found their way to the aviation department through a process dubbed "the pipeline." Each month the pipeline committee receives a list of nonclassified county employees who are about to be laid off, primarily for budgetary reasons. As exempt employees, they have no guarantee of a job elsewhere in the county -- even if they have worked there for twenty years. Nevertheless, the pipeline committee, whose members are appointed by the county manager, tries to match those people with existing job openings in other departments.

Created more than twenty years ago, the pipeline was initially designed for humanitarian reasons, to assist long-time county employees who, through no fault of their own, were about to lose their jobs owing to cutbacks. In recent years, however, critics charge that the pipeline has been politicized by Vidal and by county commissioners, who use it as a way to funnel certain individuals to the airport.

Maria Casellas, the county's personnel director, says that employees moved through the pipeline process are supposed to fill already-existing positions. She also notes that if the new job pays less than the current salary, they are supposed to take a pay cut.

But new positions were created especially for some commission aides, and at salaries higher than the jobs normally pay. Commission aides, though, are not the only employees who receive special treatment. Former members of the county manager's staff also enjoy certain benefits. When Joaquin Avino was county manager, Hortensia "Julie" Pallais was one of his receptionists. After Avino left, Armando Vidal decided he couldn't use her any more, so he moved her out to the airport in the public affairs section, where she holds the title administrative secretary one.

An administrative secretary is the county's highest rank among clerical employees; accordingly, there is a long list of required job skills. The standard description on file with the personnel office states that an administrative secretary must have "accuracy and speed" in using both a typewriter and a computer and must be able to take dictation "at a high rate of speed." Because the requirements are so demanding, the position offers the highest salary among clerical employees.

Pallais admits she can neither type nor take dictation.
Primarily she answers the telephone and clips aviation-related articles from the newspaper, according to her supervisor, Lauren Gail. "It keeps her busy enough," Gail says. She does virtually the same job, according to Gail, as another public affairs employee, Barbara Elie. But Elie is only classified as an airport clerk two, and her annual salary is less than $16,000 a year, while Pallais earns more than $37,000. "There is nothing fishy about my being here," says Pallais. "I've been with the county twenty years."

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