Homestead's Dirt

In South Miami-Dade it's all in the land -- the earth, the profits, and the sweet deals

In 1992 Hurricane Andrew ravaged Homestead, decimating businesses and sending thousands of former residents fleeing northward. As a result, the city has hungrily eyed opportunities to help it rebuild. It's no coincidence that two of the more contentious issues in town right now deal with land. It's Homestead's one abundant natural resource. And that's the draw. Whether it's space to put in a venue, like 1995's motorsports complex (which will host a NASCAR race this fall); or the raw product, like the fill the Redland Co. and Florida Rock & Sand are both after, there's plenty of money to be made. The mayor's aggressively pro-business stance dovetails with the city's needs and has connected him to South Miami-Dade's big money, and to people like Tomas Andre Mestre.

Hauling dirt is the basis of much of the Cuban-born Mestre's fortune. Although he dabbled in various business ventures, from RM Land and Cattle, which went out of business in 1988, to successful construction companies, it wasn't until Hurricane Andrew struck that Mestre came into his own. Mestre's house, still under construction, was damaged by the storm. "I am proud to say that we are one of those who stayed to rebuild. Since then, we have all worked hard to bring economic prosperity back to our community," Mestre noted in a written statement provided by Wragg.

"There was a lot of work to be done there, if you were willing to do it," says Wragg. Mestre, she adds, was willing. In 1993 he formed RRS. He hauled anything that paid well -- trash, dirt, or sewage. "We're not talking high glamour here," Wragg notes. But it paid off. Soon his fleet of trucks grew.

Councilman Steve Bateman, a Shiver rival, criticized both the dump and lake-excavation deals
Councilman Steve Bateman, a Shiver rival, criticized both the dump and lake-excavation deals
Parsons's lawyer Oscar Rivero thinks there's something amiss in the way the city did business
Steve Satterwhite
Parsons's lawyer Oscar Rivero thinks there's something amiss in the way the city did business

The key to maintaining his success lay in winning no-bid contracts from various government agencies. But taxpayers often ended up paying heavily for Mestre's services. And his company has been accused of resorting to unethical, even illegal business practices.

For instance in December 1998, Miami-Dade County settled a lawsuit against it by the Bauza Corporation, which alleged the county did not properly supervise RRS on a job site. The county agreed to pay $1.7 million, but only through its insurance carrier. Bauza is now suing the insurance company and RRS. (County officials originally hired RRS to remove debris Bauza dumped -- the county says without correct permits -- on the company's site at SW 157th Avenue and 200th Street.) Bauza officials claimed RRS "with felonious intent" stole 90,000 cubic yards of fine-grade topsoil and 15,000 cubic yards of rock from Bauza, an estimated $360,000 worth of material, while cleaning the site. RRS is still fighting the lawsuit, claiming that their logs show only debris was taken, not fill.

In 1994, when the county's Department of Solid Waste first awarded RRS the emergency no-bid contract to haul away the debris, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel disclosed that RRS was charging $11.50 per ton, three times the going rate, then subcontracting the work to independent truckers and paying them $3.75 per ton. Taxpayers could have spent only $300,000 if the work had gone out competitively. They ended up paying $900,000. In the end, according to county officials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursed the county nine dollars per ton. The county made up the difference. Spokeswoman Wragg counters that project management, loading, insurance, and storage helped account for the markup.

This past summer the City of Miami tabled a garbage contract that involved building a costly compost center, widely seen as an inside deal meant to enrich lobbyists and connected businessmen, not city residents. The Miami Herald reported that RRS stood to earn one million dollars from the project. "It was a terrible deal for the city, in terms of cost," says City Manager Donald Warshaw, who came into office just as the contract was up for review.

Wragg says those incidents represent a tiny amount of the work RRS has handled over the years, the majority of them successful projects completed on time. "It's misleading to focus on three matters of controversy in a business that's very wide-ranging," she asserts.

Much of the work Mestre does is with government agencies. Not coincidentally, Mestre continues to push his political influence. He's thrown fundraisers not only for Shiver but also Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas. Such proximity has left Shiver vulnerable to criticism that he is putting the interests of businesses ahead of those of his constituents.

In late April 1998 lawyer Oscar Rivero first approached Homestead officials with a proposal. His client, the Miami office of world-wide engineering firm Parsons Engineering Science, offered to clean up a contaminated dump across the street from the city's high school on SE Twelfth Avenue, then build a park on top of it -- at no cost to the city. The firm would be paid from federal and state grant money. The city just needed to give its approval.

"It was our idea, we brought it to them," says Rivero. "Everybody we talked to loved it."

(While no other companies made formal proposals to the city, ATC officials say they reviewed the site as a possible project as far back as 1997.)

Because the project would not cost the city a cent, and because it was Parsons's idea, Rivero wrote a May 11, 1998, letter to the city manager asking if the project could be awarded to them exclusively and not sent out for competitive proposals. City Manager Charles Baldwin says that, while the city charter allows him to waive competitive bidding in extreme situations, he didn't want to take any chances. The project would be advertised. "We said, 'Fine, if that's the law, that's the law,'" Rivero recalls. "We were pretty confident. [Redeveloping landfills] is what this company does."

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