Carlos Alvarez Responds to Our Plea to Support Norman Braman's Recall

In this week's New Times, we lay out four reasons you should support billionaire Norman Braman's efforts to recall County Mayor Carlos Alvarez. We're obviously not alone in believing the measure has merit -- Braman announced last night that more than 90,000 folks in Dade County have already signed the petition. (The auto magnate needs only 52,000 to get it on the ballot, but the rules are so strict that he decided to collect many more.)

Alvarez, as you can image, disagrees with our column. We offered him a chance to respond to each of the four points. Click through for the mayor's take on why he doesn't deserve a recall.

New Times: Your most recent budget includes pay raises for the majority of county workers and a property tax increase for Dade residents. You've said the combination of unbending unions and county commissioners left you no choice but to take such an approach, but as strong mayor, couldn't you have at least proposed salary decreases across the board?

Mayor Carlos Alvarez: There is absolutely not a property tax increase for the majority of residents. In fact, 60 percent of property owners will be paying the same or less. At the same time, Miami-Dade County will collect about $50 million less in property tax revenue.

Unprecedented union concessions have produced $225 million in taxpayer savings over the term of the three-year contracts. Cuts include a combination of temporary suspensions of certain pay supplements and a permanent new policy of requiring all employees to contribute 5 percent of their base salary toward the county's health insurance costs. That concession alone amounts to about $90 million a year.

The temporary suspensions will be restored after a full year. As a result, personnel costs will increase. To characterize that as a "pay raise" for employees who have still sacrificed 8 to 9 percent of their pay is just illogical.

Our process is a complex one. Unionized employees make up approximately 88 percent of the county's workforce. Collective bargaining takes place between management and union leadership, but all agreements must then be approved or disapproved by our Board of County Commissioners. It was a long, arduous process reaching agreements with our ten bargaining units.

I would rather bargain in good faith, realize real savings right now and open the door to continued negotiations which could produce even more wage and benefit concessions. We could be at impasse with all ten units right now, realizing no savings; or like other communities, caught up in very costly legal battles.

The budget also includes the elimination of more than 900 positions, bringing our head count to the lowest point it has been since the 1990s, even though the population is much higher. Layoffs, reassignments, and departmental consolidations are all part of the adopted budget, and believe me, our workforce knows it.

We want to ensure that we do not unfairly place the entire burden of this recession on either taxpayers who fund our services or the residents who depend upon them to survive.

Keep in mind, over the past four years, Miami-Dade County has closed $1 billion in budget gaps.

In 2009, while facing a $427 million budget shortfall, you approved raises of at least 10 percent to 12 staffers and 5 percent raises for another 36 police commanders. In hindsight, do you still stand by that decision? If so, why?

It is important to look at the bigger picture. The budget of the county executive office has been reduced by more than 14 positions and $3.6 million since Fiscal Year 2006-2007.

With regard to the commanders: Supervisors were making thousands of dollars less than those they supervised. The adjustment fixed a longstanding departmental inequity.

Again this year, you chose to use your $800 monthly car allowance on a BMW (a 500i Gran Turismo). Obviously, the car allowance is pocket change in the grand scheme of the budget, but -- purely as a symbol of sacrifice -- why not give it up or at least spend it on something less ostentatious?

What should be a discussion about car allowances has instead become a discussion about what kind of car I drive. It's unfortunate. The car allowance wasn't created, enhanced, or tailored for me. All I have done is reduce it. The adopted budget includes a 25 percent car allowance reduction for all members of the administration who receive an allowance, including me. Real savings trumps symbolism.

Leaked documents in August showed that, despite pleas to the contrary, the Florida Marlins are among the most profitable teams in Major League Baseball. Yet the stadium deal you helped negotiate will eventually cost taxpayers more than $2 billion. Short-term job creation aside, shouldn't you have negotiated a deal that put more financial burden on the team's owners?

When you buy a house, you don't ask yourself what that house costs after paying 30 years of interest. It's unfair to do that with the Marlins ballpark. We didn't institute a tax or increase a tax to pay for the Marlins ballpark. It was done with existing revenue streams and overwhelmingly paid for with tourist taxes (not property taxes), which have very limited uses.

When the Baseball Stadium Agreements were approved and signed last year, the Marlins took on a large and decades-long financial obligation. The team is responsible for $120 million of up-front construction costs, more than $93 million in rent payments, and more than $26 million in capital reserve funds. The team is also responsible for any cost overruns.

I have always said that I supported a public-private partnership in the building of a ballpark for the Marlins. Projects like stadiums, arts centers, and museums enhance quality of life and contribute to the cosmopolitan nature of a large metropolitan area. They are a destination of interest for many people, and our number one industry is tourism. We are not building a stadium for the Marlins. We are building a stadium for the enjoyment of Miami-Dade County residents.

Last question: You've said Norman Braman's recall effort is "personal." Why do you believe that to be true?

Mr. Braman suffered a very expensive and public defeat when he fought against the ballpark and lost. Billionaires are used to getting their way. Not once has he asked to meet with me on the county budget, and he hasn't proposed one viable solution.

If he is so ideologically opposed to our budget (which is not collecting more in taxes), why is he the keynote speaker to honor the city manager of a municipality that adopted a tax rate higher than the rollback rate?

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink