THE STORY: After a major sprucing up of county highways for the Summit of the Americas, residents in Dade County suburbs began clamoring for their 'share' of stately palm trees. Pressed by politicians, Metro delivered the trees, but taxpayers came up . . . well, short.
A prominent South Dade farmer, paid millions by Metro to landscape county roadways, charged taxpayers for towering royal palms while planting shorter, cheaper trees, a survey by The Herald shows.
Metro's bill payers didn't know the trees came up short. They didn't double-check invoices. They didn't send inspectors to measure the trees that were planted by Manuel Diaz Farms.
From urban North Dade to rural Homestead, thousands of trees on public roads and highways now stand as a living monument to government foul-ups that allowed county taxpayers to be shortchanged by the politically connected farmer.
The Herald discovered the problem after examining billings for trees purchased by Metro, then checking to see what Manuel Diaz Farms actually planted. A pattern emerged:
* On busy Kendall Drive, Diaz billed the county for 430 royal palms that are supposed to be 28 to 30 feet tall. Typical actual size: 22 to 24 feet.
* On Avocado Drive and nearby streets in Homestead, Diaz billed the county for several hundred yellow-flowered tabebuia trees 15 to 17 feet high. Typical actual size: eight to 12 feet.
* On Southwest 117th Avenue, Diaz billed for 347 royal palms at least 28 feet tall. Typical actual size: 22 to 24 feet.
* On Southwest 152nd Street east of Metrozoo, Diaz billed for 73 date palms 14 to 16 feet high. Typical size: Eleven feet, tops.
Two tree experts tapped by The Herald primarily checked the tallest trees listed on Diaz's bills -- 28 to 30 foot royal palms. The 2,900 trees represent about $864,000 in charges on Diaz's current $3.5 million contract.
At every location checked, the experts found palms shorter than what the county paid for. Metro routinely paid $300 for trees worth only $250 under its contract. The experts also found $15,000 in shortages on other varieties of trees. Total estimated loss to taxpayers: at least $160,000.
That's enough money to line nearly 40 blocks of Biscayne Boulevard with royal palms. On both sides.
A spokeswoman for Diaz had an explanation for The Herald's findings: The trees shrunk.
"I think that shrinkage is the primary reason, " said Lourdes Rodriguez, Diaz's office manager. "The height definitely is impacted by the cold weather and by the transplanting. You can lose three to four feet."
A University of Florida palm expert didn't believe it.
"It's pretty ridiculous, " said horticulture professor Alan Meerow, who helped develop tree-measuring standards for the state agriculture department. "I don't believe there could be that degree of shrinkage caused by transplant shock. Maybe a foot or so, but not four to six feet. I've just never heard anything like that."
Metro managers were skeptical as well.
Acting parks director William Cutie, who approved most of the payments to Diaz, said he suspects that palms selected by a county landscape architect were substituted with smaller trees by Diaz's crews.
"As a taxpayer, I have a problem with this, " Cutie said. "I have asked for a survey of the tree sizes, street by street. If they are not the right size, corrections need to be made."
In the midst of The Herald's inquiry, County Manager Armando Vidal also ordered an audit of Diaz's contract. Last week, after being told about the county's pending review, Diaz's spokeswoman said his company would pay up for any short trees.