Hurricane season may be well under way, but county emergency workers and firefighters are still busy making preparations. This week -- and for the next two -- they will be moving into a new, $24 million headquarters in West Miami-Dade. The place is beautiful. Flat computer screens, satellite dishes, marble floors, and a high-tech phone system are among its many features. It also is, according to firefighters' union vice president Stan Hills, "a monument to misplaced priorities and waste," and a betrayal of county voters. And then there's this: The choice of location spares Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas a major embarrassment.

A good deal for taxpayers? Nope.

Not that some kind of move was unjustified. The county's old emergency operations center and fire department headquarters on Galloway Road was a mess. So back in 1994 cost-conscious voters approved a $39-million bond sale for a new command center, a training facility, ten new stations, and more.

Three years later, with Penelas's encouragement, the county loaned struggling Pan Am Airlines five million dollars to save itself.

Two unrelated events, it would seem.

But then Pan Am went belly up and the county geniuses had to come up with a way to save their mayor's political hide. Fire Chief Dave Paulison backed purchase of the Eastern/Pan Am Airlines building at 9300 NW 36th Street. The county would use five million from the bond sale to cover Pan Am's debt and a new headquarters could be ready in six months. Oops. Exactly two years ago this week, after three hours of debate, commissioners by a six-to-five vote approved the deal. In the interim, Hills and other firefighters contend, the county has allowed at least four promised stations to "fall off the map."

Assistant Fire Chief Tyler Smith, who has managed the new headquarters project, says the fire union doesn't understand the deal. The building has come in on time and right on budget, he insists. Indeed six stations have been built with bond proceeds and ten more from other sources. "This is a complicated real estate transaction," Smith adds. "It is easily misunderstood." Responds Hills: "This is the fire department's problem. Service comes last."

Speaking of easily misunderstood, Riptide is disturbed that Miamians rarely get to read the work of the Herald's best graduates. For some time now Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen and -- apparently -- his bosses at Knight Ridder have waged a campaign to rid the paper of New York Times copy, including the work of former Herald staffers Debbie Sontag, Rachel Swarns, Sam Dillon, Susan Sachs, Chris Marquis, Celia Dugger, Don Van Natta, and Lissette Alvarez, among others. All of 'em left the Herald within the last decade to work for the Times in exotic locales like Johannesburg, Jerusalem, Mexico City, Cairo, and New Delhi. In the past the Herald regularly published copy from former staffers. This has been curtailed, though not cut off, for two reasons, says Herald world editor Juan Vasquez: 1) The Times is competition, and 2) editors have closer contact with Knight Ridder correspondents (who, for Riptide's money, are generally less talented). Comments one former Heraldite: "Readers lose in the bargain."

And this just in from the Palm Beach Post: Gary Press, publisher of the weekly South Florida Business Journal, apparently has a novel definition of ethics. After hitting up associates of Bruce Springsteen for ten tickets to a sold-out Madison Square Garden gig, he posted half of them for sale on the Internet. Press paid $70.50. He was asking $200. "I made a huge mistake," he told the Post.

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse