Paying the cost for paying the costs
Gonzalez argued that the mayor did not drive the best bargain he could in contract talks with county employees. The increases Alvarez had granted his own staff cost him the moral high ground, Gonzalez said, making it hard for the mayor to demand sacrifices from public employees. Nevertheless, Gonzalez’s recall petition fell 5,000 signatures short of the 52,000 required.
The stage for the current challenge to Alvarez was set in September, when county commissioners approved the current budget in a 10-hour marathon meeting, under the explicit threat of a recall. The $7.3 billion budget shrank operating expenses by one percent, and laid off 941 public employees. But it also included $132 million for contractual raises due civil servants, including 13 percent salary increases for police.
At the same time, the controversial budget raised the property tax rate 12 percent. The rate hike brought the county an additional $178 million in revenues, but still fell $50 million short of receipts from the previous year. In other words, if the tax rate had stayed what it was, most homeowners would have had the amount of their individual property tax bills go down this year, and Miami-Dade tax collections overall would have actually been reduced more than $200 million as compared with the previous fiscal year.
Instead, even though a substantial percentage of homeowners saw their bills stay flat or decrease, 40 percent of all homeowners, and 60 percent of those who use their house as primary residence status, did see their taxes rise (about $120 on a median valued home).
County services were kept largely, but not entirely, intact.
Supporters abandoned Alvarez in droves, according to a CBS4 News/Miami Herald poll at the time. Only 19 percent of those polled felt he was doing a “good” or “excellent” job, and 58 percent said they would vote against him if it came to a recall.
In politics, it is a given that unpopular choices, or even good choices poorly sold to voters, leave a politician vulnerable come Election Day. But Alvarez cannot run for reelection, and voters were in no mood to wait two years for him to leave.
Weeks after the budget was approved, Norman Braman, a wealthy car dealer and former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, took up the recall where Lazaro Gonzalez had left off. By Oct. 25, two weeks after launching his effort, Braman claimed he had collected 90,000 signatures. County election officials will now confirm the validity of the signatures, and — presuming at least 52,000 of them are cleared — schedule a referendum, probably in early 2011, on whether to boot Alvarez from office. If Alvarez loses his post, there will be a special election to determine his successor.
Though Braman had initially clashed with Alvarez over a controversial plan to build a stadium for the Dolphins, he told Remapping Debate that it was the property tax increases — not opposition to the stadium — that prompted so many voters to sign the recall petitions. (The county’s share of the stadium cost is being paid for by tourism revenues, and cannot be used to offset the cost of municipal services unrelated to tourism.)
Still, the mayor stood by his choices. “In my case, a flat budget would have been extremely irresponsible,” said Alvarez. “It would have meant drastic cuts in public safety and social services.” In a later e-mail, he defended the raises for his staff, saying it was important “to look at the big picture.” He had reorganized his office, giving employees additional responsibilities. Overall, he said, he had trimmed the County Executive’s budget by 14 positions and saved $3.6 million over the last three years. “These facts have not been widely reported,” Alvarez wrote. “In the private sector, this would be called streamlining the organization."
With 87 percent of public sector employees under union contracts, Alvarez said in the interview, he had negotiated a three-year contract that saved Miami-Dade $224 million, with most of those savings achieved last year. After that year, merit raises and other contractual benefits resumed.
“That was portrayed as me giving them raises,” the mayor noted.
Alvarez said he tries to seize every opportunity to explain his choices to the public, and feels mostly frustrated, as if he is not getting his message across. “You go and you talk to as many people as you can — as many chamber groups, as many consumer groups,” he said. “It’s time-consuming. And you do your job. That’s reality. We have to deal with it.”
He complained that the media slanted reports to undermine his efforts. “I wouldn’t say they’re untruthful, but they definitely leave out things that are important. Sixty-two percent of our population is Hispanic, and Hispanic radio has been relentless on no tax increases.”
“There’s an overall sense that no matter what the reasons are, no matter what reality is, under the circumstances that we’re in today, the high unemployment, the foreclosures, there is no way government can operate the way we’re doing without laying off people, breaking contracts,” Alvarez said. “We do pick up your garbage. When you wake up in the morning and turn on your faucet, our water comes out of it.”
“At this stage of my career,” the embattled mayor said, “I never thought I’d be trying to convince people of the role of government, and the role that government plays in their everyday lives.”