Homestead's Dirt

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

"I wanted to help the city, but it was also a business opportunity," Munz says. "It's a good deal for us."

It's also a crappy deal for Florida Rock & Sand -- or Rinker, White Rock Industries, Miami Crushed Rock, or any other Miami-Dade County fill provider that might have wanted to bid on the work. Steve Torcise points out one ironic detail from his November meeting with Baldwin. "My recollection is very clear: Charles Baldwin specifically told me that any business arrangement between the city and a private contractor would have to go to competitive bidding." And yet, with a couple of strokes of the pen, the city had removed two of its plum public-works projects from the possibility of competitive bidding, and bestowed them upon Shiver's pal Pinky.

Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver has earned a reputation wheeling and dealing his city toward economic prosperity
Steve Satterwhite
Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver has earned a reputation wheeling and dealing his city toward economic prosperity

Incensed, Torcise filed suit in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court. Attorney John Shubin, representing Florida Rock & Sand in this litigation, put forth two major theories. First, that the city had improperly created a commercial quarry on residentially zoned land. Second, that the city had violated its own rules for competitive bidding.

"The city has made several bad business decisions over the past few years," Torcise asserts, "and they continue to invent extraordinary and unconventional measures to avoid paying for the fill they borrowed for the racetrack. Unfortunately, those measures have come at the expense, not only of Florida Rock & Sand, but the rest of the firms [who could have bid on the jobs], and at the expense of good government. We believe the actions of the city have been illegal."

Pinky Munz has another theory. "The biggest thing the public needs to know is that this is nothing more than a competitor trying to monopolize fill operations in South Dade," Munz says. "If [Torcise] can monopolize fill, he can control pricing. It's really more against me than against the city."

Though the contract with Redland passed the city council unanimously, Steve Bateman is having second thoughts. "I still think that using our own natural resources in this way was smart and savvy," Bateman says. "Where I draw the line is, did we need to do this as an emergency measure, handpicking someone who happened to write us a $1.4 million check?"

Bateman doesn't blame Munz for the current mess. "I blame us, the policy setters and enforcers," he says. "The common thread, once again, is not following our charter. No one is asking the simple questions here. If we had, we would have spent a lot less in attorneys' fees, fighting what Florida Rock & Sand feels is unethical."

Serota, Baldwin, and Shiver all point out that the city charter allows the council to waive competitive bidding when it is in the best interest of the city. The city council unanimously agreed with Baldwin and Shiver's assessment of the Redland deal -- getting Munz to pay the $1.4 million and giving him exclusive rights to dig the lake were in the city's best interest. The council waived competitive bidding on the project on May 3.

The city council agreed Monday to pay Redland $4.5 million over three years to excavate 2.1 million cubic yards of the city's fill. Work is already under way; Munz says Redland has done some de-mucking, blasting, and excavation on the site. The result: a swath of square, turbid pools. Two huge dredging cranes, as well as assorted heavy dump trucks and pickup trucks, often are parked on the site. In a June letter to Baldwin, councilman Bateman complained about the work and the equipment on the site: "If there is no contract in place, who does the equipment belong to and why is it there?" he wrote. "If this equipment belongs to Redland construction, it does not look good for the Council or you, sir."

On June 25 a circuit court judge dismissed Florida Rock & Sand's seven-count complaint -- four counts were dismissed "with prejudice," meaning the plaintiff could not refile, three dismissed "without prejudice." Shubin says he's going to refile all seven anyway, based upon the "ripeness" of the charges.

But by now, the city has something else to worry about: a successful petition drive, conducted by Florida Rock, that will require a referendum on the issue of blasting, as well as competitive bidding on city-owned excavations. The public vote must take place by February 2000.

The campaign, filed by a newly formed political action committee called BLAST Homestead, was totally funded by Florida Rock & Sand. "We felt that a charter amendment was the most efficient way to put the power back in the people's hands," says Torcise.

Shiver believes that the grassroots claim is a stretch. "I think you can see a pattern here of what seems to be a disgruntled company wanting us to legislate market conditions," Shiver grouses.

He adds that the vagueness of the ballot language scares him. "It reads that any excavation on city-owned property has to go to public vote," he says. "As I understand it, that can mean turning over a mound of dirt for re-landscaping. That would effectively strangle this community."

"I don't consider [landscaping] to be excavation," Shubin replies dryly. "I assume their public works department doesn't need to use explosives to plant a tree."

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