"The plants vary from 21 feet to 26.5 feet, with the majority at 24 feet, " Miglio wrote in a Dec. 27 memo. "To date, no $300 palms have been delivered or planted on this project. Consequently, I recommend payment to the contractor be at the lower contract price of $250."
A day later, Cutie approved the full $300 for the palms despite Miglio's complaint, records show. The tab: $75,000.
Eight days after that, he OKd another bill for $40,500 -- again for 28 to 30 foot palms along 117th Avenue that Miglio insisted were short.
Miglio complained twice more in January -- once about Diaz's crews planting more Christmas palms than specified in plans, and once that trees of another variety, ligustrum lucidum, were six to eight feet tall instead of the 10-12 feet that the contract required. Cutie cut the $31,725 bill for the ligustrums by $1,586 -- a 5 percent penalty. Diaz was paid in full for the Christmas palms.
By that point, Miglio's boss was fed up, records show. He wanted Diaz to stop getting paid by sidestepping Miglio.
"Manuel Diaz Farms has not been adhering to the directions of our field supervisor, " highway division chief James Leone wrote to Cutie on Jan. 24. "To avoid continued indiscriminate plantings and assure payments are made in accordance with the correct heights, I respectfully request you instruct the contractor submit his invoices to our field supervisor for approval prior to your department processing these payments."
Cutie obliged in February, two months after the first written complaint. "When they brought the problem to my attention, we took care of the problem, " he said in an interview.
The county did something else in February: It added another $200,000 to Diaz's contract.
WHERE PALM TREES ARE SHORT
These are sites where Dade county got the short stick on trees planted since August as part of a $3.5 million contract with Manuel Diaz Farms, records show.
The company billed Metro for 28- to 30-foot royal palms. According to the Herald's experts, the county should have been charged for 22- to 24-foot trees, which cost $50 less apiece.
1.: Northwest 36th Street from LeJeune Road west to Milam Dairy Road.
The bill: $65,400 for 218 royal palms.
Estimated overcharge: $10,900
2.: Culmer Center, Northwest 17th Street and 3rd Avenue.
The bill: $25,800 for 86 royal palms.
Estimated overcharge: $4,300
3.: Northwest 6th Avenue from 21st to 27th streets.
The bill: $9,000 for 30 royal palms.
Estimated overcharge: $1,500
4.: SW 117th Avenue from Kendall Drive to Tamiami Trail.
The bill: $104,100 for 347 royal palms.
Estimated overcharge: $17,350
5.: Kendall Drive from U.S. 1 to SW 152nd Avenue.
The bill: $129,000 for 430 royal palms.
Estimated overcharge: $21,500
6.: Southwest 152nd Street from SW 137th Avenue to 157th Avenue.
The bill: $131,400 for 438 royal palms.
Estimated overcharge: $21,900
7.: Caribbean Boulevard from the Florida Turnpike to SW 184th Street.
The bill: $136,200 for 454 royal palms
Estimated overcharge: $22,700
8.: Southwest 216th Street from 112th Avenue to Old Cutler Road.
The bill: $33,300 for 111 royal palms.
Estimated overcharge: $5,550
9.: Southwest 248th Street from 112 Avenue to 187th Avenue.
The bill: $25,500 for 85 royal palms. Estimated overcharge: $4,250
10.: Southwest 152nd Avenue from 280th Street to 307th Street.
The bill: $64,800 for 216 royal palms.
Estimated overcharge: $10,800
11.: Southwest 157th Avenue from 288th Street to 304th Street.
The bill: $49,800 for 166 royal palms.
Estimated overcharge: $8,300
The bill also included: $7,920 for tabebuia trees 15-17 feet tall. An expert put them at 9-11 feet.
Estimated overcharge: $2,160
12.: Avocado Drive from U.S. 1 to 143rd Court.
The bill: $90,000 for 300 royals palms.
Estimated overcharge: $15,000
Also billed: $29,700 for 180 tabebuia trees 15-17 feet tall. Expert put them at 8-10 feet.
Estimated overcharge: $8,100
13.: Southwest 288th Street from U.S. 1 to 137th Avenue.
The bill: $18,150 for 110 tabebuias 15-17 feet tall. Expert put them at 9-12 feet.
Estimated overcharge: $4,950
MEASURING ROYAL PALMS
Metro's landscaping contracts call for palms to be measured using a state standard known as "overall height."
That's the distance from the base of the tree to the point where the upper most fully opened frond begins to curve.
The county contracted for three sizes of royal palms: 28-30 feet in overall height, 22-24 feet and 16-18 feet. The low bid prices of installed palms: $300, $250 and $199, respectively.
To determine whether county taxpayers got what they paid for, the newspaper asked three experts to measure the 28-to-30 footers listed on Diaz Farms invoices.
At 13 project sites, they measured a sampling of the tallest trees they could find. To ensure fairness to Diaz, they measured from the base of the tree to either the tip of the center spear or the top of the uppermost frond.
A University of Florida palm expert said The Herald's measuring method favored Diaz Farms.
"You have been very generous, " said Alan Meerow, an ornamental horticulure professor who helped develop the state's tree-measuring standards. "You could not come up with a more liberal definition of overall height."
The trees planted by Manuel Diaz Farms were measured by:
* Alyn D. Kay, a West Broward licensed landscape architect and former landscaping and maintenance supervisor at Miami International Airport.
* Marcus Urra, a former state urban forester.
* John Harris, a Hollywood licensed arborist, tree appraiser and president of Trees Advisors, a consulting and contracting firm.