Columns

High Noon at MIA

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According to Arnold it is absurd to continue with such an old contract given the advances in telecommunications over the past two decades. Amazingly, he points out, the aviation department still leases all its telephone equipment. In 1982, when telephones were repaired when they broke down, that may have been wise. But today telephones are virtually disposable. "They are so cheaply produced that when a phone goes haywire, you just throw it away," he says. "It doesn't make sense to lease a disposable item."

It gets worse, Arnold notes: "We lease wires. Under this contract we lease the wires in the wall because under the contract we can't buy the wire from WILTEL; we have to lease it from them. All the wires belong to WILTEL. That sounds kind of silly, doesn't it?"

So the county is now in the awkward position of having to negotiate with WILTEL for the purchase of its leased telecommunications equipment or run the risk of WILTEL ripping out all the wires, not just for the telephones, but for the airport's computer and public address systems, which are also part of the 1982 contract.

Two years ago, when aviation officials wanted to install a voice message in the airport's garage elevators that would remind passengers in four languages where they parked their car, they simply added the project to the WILTEL contract. "Rather than going through the process of writing a new request for proposals, putting it out on the street, and getting the best deal possible from a new vendor," Arnold explains, "they just went with WILTEL."

During the past two years, the county has paid more than $330,000 to lease the talking-elevator system. Despite the large sum, the county still isn't getting its money's worth. Earlier this year the Sun-Sentinel reported that WILTEL failed to install all the sensors for the chatty elevators but billed the county $48,375 for the equipment anyway.

Arnold says he remains attentive to the real problem: blindly renewing an outdated contract. "Why did this occur?" he asks rhetorically. "There are a lot of reasons." Detectives with Miami-Dade's public-corruption unit have been investigating the contract for months to determine if anyone at the county received illicit payments or enticements to keep renewing it. In addition to that criminal probe, the contract is being audited; a report is due in the next few weeks.

But Arnold warns there may be a simpler explanation for the constant renewals. "It could just be that renewing the contract was easy, it was simple, it was a lazy way to do it," he says. "If the contract was being handled by procurement professionals rather than being assigned to an operating person as an additional duty, I think we would have had a very different perspective on it."

The county is stuck with the WILTEL contract until February 2002. Arnold has already recommended drawing up a new request for proposals and soliciting competitive bids. "WILTEL may win it again," he acknowledges, "but they will win it under new terms."

No department in county government is facing as much scrutiny these days as the aviation department. FBI agents and Miami-Dade detectives continue to comb through contracts; every week new rumors circulate about a different commissioner on the verge of being indicted. The Miami Herald has had a team of reporters camped out at the airport for more than seven months trying to prove graft and corruption. I wish them luck. I've been writing airport stories for more than six years, analyzing everything from the duty-free contract to the decision to purchase $8200 toilet seats, and I've never been able to prove that kickbacks were involved. The closest I've come is to reveal the relationships between companies that win contracts and the commissioners or staffers who select them. Often the conduit for that relationship is a lobbyist.

Arnold discovered another problem: interference by commissioners in the daily operations of the airport. "When you have either the commission as a whole or individual commissioners getting involved in actual low-level operating decisions in an organization, then it starts getting problematic, and that's what causes the work-force headaches," he says. "That is a serious problem in all of county government. That is something the county manager is trying to deal with."

The county charter bars commissioners from interfering with the daily operations of any county department, but Arnold argues that the charter is difficult to enforce. At what point does a commissioner cross the line from setting policy, which they are allowed to do, to interfering, which they are prohibited from doing? "Where is that line?" he asks. "It seems that line continues to become grayer."

Currently, he says, airport officials are struggling with awarding $18 million in janitorial contracts. The professional staff has divided the airport into zones, with different companies responsible for keeping their section of the airport tidy. "But there aren't enough zones to spread the work out to as many different companies as commissioners want to spread it out to," he says, "so the contract has been delayed and delayed."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede