Despite steep spending cuts and looming layoffs, Miami-Dade County commissioners continue to stockpile cash that they spend with few restrictions and scant oversight.
Commissioner Sally Heyman is sitting on $804,000 in unspent money, Jose “Pepe” Diaz controls $461,000, Bruno Barreiro has $361,000 and Dennis Moss $354,000. Taken together, commissioners have more than $3 million in surplus taxpayer funds set aside for their personal spending whims.
The money comes from the commissioners’ individual office budgets, which are $814,000 each per year, but aren’t required to be used solely for office expenses such as staff salaries or paper and pens. Instead, the funds are regularly doled out by individual commissioners to favored groups within their districts with virtually no checks or balances; allocations are subject to a perfunctory vote at the end of commission meetings and are rarely denied.
Critics deride the money as slush funds, a stash of political pork that commissioners pass out to curry favor with constituents. Commissioners defend the practice, declaring they best know how money should be spent in their district, and that the funds support good causes.
“If that’s not illegal, it should be,’’ said Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida Tax Watch, a Tallahassee-based government watchdog group, who called the free spending “ripe for mischief” and “blatantly wrong.”
In recent years, commissioners made sure they kept firm control of the taxpayer-funded bounty: They passed an ordinance in 2007 mandating that each commissioner gets to carry over unspent funds at the end of the year, even as they are given a fresh, fully funded office budget for the new fiscal year. The ability to roll over surplus money allows commissioners to build a mountain of cash that can be handed out before an upcoming election.
Now, recently elected Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez — who, as a commissioner, defended the use of discretionary dollars — is saying he will put an end to the practice.
‘NEEDS TO STOP’
In September, when commissioners pass a new budget for the coming year, Gimenez said he will ask for a law change to stop commissioners from spending office funds on nonoffice uses, and eliminate their ability to carry over unspent funds into a new year.
“The practice of discretionary funding, it needs to stop,” Gimenez said. “You can fund services through a normal budget process.”
Two years ago, a Palm Beach County grand jury — charged with addressing a “crisis of trust in public governance” after a string of public corruption convictions — called for a slate of reforms. Topping the list: ending county commissioners’ discretionary funds.
The report said most of the money went to laudable efforts, including worthwhile community groups and nonprofits, but the process of commissioners individually handing out the funds smacked of unseemly political patronage that “at a minimum, politicized the manner of funding” and created a negative effect “in both fact and perception.”
The issue is not necessarily who the money is given to, but how it is given out, said Calabro of Florida Tax Watch. “It should be part of a competitive, transparent, accountable funding process that is reviewed by all commissioners,” he said.
Palm Beach County commissioners discontinued the practice. Broward County commissioners aren’t provided discretionary funds.
Yet Miami-Dade County elected officials have continued the practice, and some commissioners are already signaling they will fight a change.
Sally Heyman, whose district includes Aventura and Bal Harbour, said she should be able to continue steering office funds to nonoffice uses at her discretion. If not, she said, nonprofits are “not going to be getting anything at all. The money wouldn’t be available.”
Barreiro said the use of office funds for nonoffice discretionary purposes is “done to benefit the community. Commissioners each fund programs in our areas.”
The commissioner, whose district includes Miami Beach and Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, defended his hefty carry-over funds, saying they illustrate his frugality. “One reason I have been saving is I am looking forward to improving the computer system in my office,” he said. “You know, the computers become outdated quickly.”
This biggest spender this year: Commissioner Diaz, who handed out $227,505 of office funds to constituent groups. Diaz was on vacation and unavailable for comment, his office said Friday.
The debate about how commissioners can use their office funds is not new.
Two years ago, amid increased scrutiny of the practice, two other sources of discretionary funding were zeroed out. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez axed the commissioners’ “Discretionary Reserve” and “County Services Reserve” accounts, eliminating $400,000 in funds per commissioner that could be doled out with few restrictions. Those discretionary funds were in addition to the office funds. With those gone, commissioners have turned to their handsome “office” budgets. “When flagged, they have been clever about calling it something else. It is no longer a ‘discretionary’ fund but is buried in the office budget,” said Douglas Halsey, a lawyer with White & Case, which is taking a hard look at Miami-Dade discretionary spending on its own on a pro bono basis.
“It is clear that county commissioners have for years enjoyed being able to use taxpayer dollars for patronage purposes.”
As Gimenez is pledging to end discretionary funding and require surplus monies be returned to the general fund, some commissioners may take no chances and begin rapidly unloading their largess before the fiscal year runs out Sept. 30. Commissioners are in recess for August and return in September.
Last week, county commissioners closed their meeting by taking turns individually doling out, in rapid fire, nearly $100,000 in office funds.
Barreiro handed $18,000 to American Coach Lines to hire the bus company to transport seniors in his district to holiday parties later this year. Heyman doled out $10,000 to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
Commissioner Audrey Edmonson allocated nearly $5,000 toward backpacks for the “District 3 Annual Back-to-School event.” Commissioner Barbara Jordan allocated $235.65 for expenses “related to District 1’s Annual Senior Valentine’s Day Dance.”
All the spending raises a looming question: If commissioners can save so much of their office fund for future years or spend it on nonoffice expenses, why do they get such a big office budget?
As part of a countywide budget-cutback totaling some $400 million, Gimenez has proposed cutting the Board of County Commissioners’ overall budget by 10 percent. But there are other departments under commission control, including the Office of Protocol, the commission auditor and Intergovernmental Relations.
As a result, commissioners could choose to slash those budgets while keeping their individual office budgets at current levels .