Published Dec. 21, 2008

Tax money inflated salaries, overtime
BY LARRY LEBOWITZ AND ROB BARRY

It was Nov. 1, 2002, four days before a historic election aimed at reshaping the transit landscape in Miami-Dade County, and a backroom deal was quietly being cemented at County Hall.

Four times in 26 years, voters had rejected county attempts to raise taxes for transit. This time would be different, county leaders vowed as they laid out a detailed, overdue expansion of the bus, rail and road network. Voters bought the sales pitch, ratifying a new 0.5 percent sales tax by a 2-1 margin.

What they didn't know: Just before the election, then-Transit Director Danny Alvarez and then-County Manager Steve Shiver inked that secret deal with a powerful labor union that had campaigned hard for the tax.

The pact with Local 291 of the Transport Workers Union delivered double-digit raises for 274 minibus drivers at the bottom of the pay scale just five days after the election. It vaulted 731 veteran TWU bus drivers to the top of the scale at least eight years faster than they would have gotten there before.

None of it was disclosed to voters. County commissioners never voted on it. Even former Mayor Alex Penelas, who spearheaded the 2002 campaign, said in a May interview that he was unaware of the agreement his transit director and county manager had cut.

That pre-election deal was just the beginning. Instead of ''New Money for New Projects,'' as the campaign promised, the new revenue stream contributed to ballooning salaries, overtime and fringe benefits at Miami-Dade Transit, where the payroll has swelled 63 percent since the tax took effect.

Over the next four years, the county reclassified hundreds of rank-and-file and management jobs to higher-paying salaries, as Alvarez's successor as transit director, Roosevelt Bradley, presided over the hiring of 1,400 new full-time employees.

Patronage abounded. The hiring spree included a daughter of Commissioner Dorrin Rolle and aides or relatives of at least nine prominent local politicians, as well as figures implicated in Miami's vote fraud and airport fuel farm scandals.

Despite all of the new hires, the county didn't come close to delivering all of the new bus and rail service that Penelas and his tax supporters had promised.

Metrorail and Metromover are running fewer trains today than in 2002. The campaign promised a 64 percent increase in bus service by 2007; it peaked at 44 percent in December 2005 and has been slashed several times since. Today, Metrobus miles are up 23 percent over 2002, about one-third of what was promised, and more cuts loom next June.

The consequence of those expanding salaries and bureaucracy amid diminishing services is one of the untold failings of the 2002 sales tax.

More money for routine transit operations, including salaries, means less money to buy new buses and rail cars and to design and build new Metrorail extensions.

''That's unconscionable. That isn't what we voted for,'' said Coral Gables family practitioner Dr. Charles Dunn, a longtime rail advocate. ``We voted for expanded service on the street -- expand Metrorail and the bus service. We didn't vote to increase salaries.''

Union leaders and former county officials take a different view.

Transit customers benefited from the recrafted contract, said former TWU President J.W. Johnson and former Transit Director Alvarez. It helped the county quickly and efficiently add much of the new bus service that the campaign promised, they said.

Taxpayers also benefited, Johnson and Alvarez argued, because the union agreed to slightly lower entry-level wages for new drivers and the contract gave management more scheduling flexibility and the freedom to hire more part-time drivers. This, they said, ultimately placed more buses on more routes for riders.

But those reasons provide little solace to critics like Richard N. Friedman, a Palmetto Bay lawyer who campaigned against proposed tax increases for the transit agency in 1976, 1991, 1992 and 1999 as well.

''After all these years, and being a slightly cynical lawyer, I suggest to you that there's a quid pro quo going on there for the union's support of this tax,'' he said.

The TWU is one of the three most powerful bargaining units at County Hall. It plays a key role in most commission and mayoral races. The transport workers led a large organized-labor contingent that crafted the list of projects in the People's Transportation Plan and worked phone banks, distributed mailers and attended campaign events.

Johnson and Alvarez said the pre-election agreement with the unionized bus drivers had been in the works since the summer. They said it was a coincidence that the papers were signed shortly before the election.

Johnson insisted there was no link between the TWU's campaign support for the tax and the raises the county awarded after it passed.

''I know how it looks,'' Johnson said. ``But this was in the works for a while. And if the tax didn't pass, [the bus driver deal] wouldn't have gone into effect.''

Alvarez, now consulting for the Puerto Rican mass transit agency, said the accord ``really cleaned up a lot of problems we'd been having with overtime and pay differences.''

Critics, like Friedman and Dunn, believe the county breached the public trust in a way that will make it harder to win future tax initiatives.

A Miami Herald investigation also found:

• Patronage helped grease the way. Dozens of employees were brought into the agency through a side-door contract with temporary staffing agencies that was criticized in a 2006 county Inspector General's report.

''You just had cronyism galore,'' said Paul Conley, who retired in 2005 after 26 years with the transit agency's procurement division. ``It was just purely patronage and feeding at the trough. They were manipulating the hiring practices for their friends and upgraded everybody.''

After the tax passed, aides and secretaries to former Mayor Penelas, Commissioners Barbara Carey-Shuler, Betty Ferguson, Jimmy Morales, José ''Pepe'' Diaz, Dennis Moss, Natacha Seijas and Katy Sorensen and retired congresswoman Carrie Meek were hired by Miami-Dade Transit.

• In March 2003, three months after the tax started to accrue, Bradley cut another deal with the TWU that boosted salaries by as much as 33 percent for 256 bus garage mechanics, technicians and body-shop painters.

• The contract amendments that reclassified the drivers and mechanics had a cascading effect on the rest of the transit agency. Over the next four years, hundreds of unionized lower-level managers and supervisors, and exempt executives, had their salaries adjusted higher.

The consequences of those reclassifications and salary adjustments -- coupled with the annual cost-of-living and contractual raises enjoyed by most county workers -- continue to haunt the deficit-plagued transit agency today.

The number of transit employees who grossed more than $100,000 a year increased 324 percent over five years, from 34 in 2002 to 144 in 2007, an analysis of county payroll records shows.

Even as Miami-Dade Transit has raised fares, cut poor-performing routes and eliminated nearly 600 full-time positions since March 2006, the payroll has remained virtually flat at $280 million -- a byproduct of the reclassified jobs and routine annual raises.

PROMISES FOR ALL

The People's Transportation Plan promised something for everyone: free rides for seniors, free Metromover rides for everyone, and up to 88.9 miles of new Metrorail on eight corridors.

It also promised a doubling of the bus fleet, up to 17 million miles of added service, a 20 percent share of the proceeds for cities, synchronized traffic signals, wider roads, and hundreds of small-scale public works projects.

A Miami Herald investigation in June showed how the campaign made far too many promises and the tax couldn't generate anywhere near enough money to fulfill them. Most of the cost estimates were off-base. Commissioners refused to cede power to an independent trust that voters demanded. County managers and transit agency leaders tucked dozens of big-ticket items into the spending plan to repair and replace computers and infrastructure.

The campaign also extended the vague promise of jobs -- new bus drivers and rail car mechanics, clerical staffers and security guards, engineering consultants and construction laborers -- but never specified how many would be needed as service grew.

There was scant oversight. The union contract amendments were handled internally by county bureaucrats, never drawing official commission scrutiny.

The Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, which was supposed to protect voters who feared that the county would squander the new tax, never had the authority to tell the transit agency how many people it should employ or when new staffers should be hired.

Most of the new hires and the bulk of the reclassifications coincided with a leadership vacuum at County Hall.

After winning the tax referendum, Penelas focused on a statewide pre-kindergarten ballot initiative and then an unsuccessful attempt at a U.S. Senate seat.

Two weeks after the tax passed, Alvarez and Shiver created a new agency with Penelas' blessing: the Office of Professional Transportation Management, tapped to pursue matching federal funds for Metrorail expansion and oversee the long-range planning, construction and capital improvements promised.

ETHNIC POLITICS

Like many new initiatives at County Hall, it became mired in ethnic politics.

Black leaders complained that Alvarez built a mini-empire at the new office, renting expensive headquarters, buying furniture and picking off 60 of his highest-paid employees, most of them Hispanic.

Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites complained to commissioners, top managers and the Inspector General's office about patronage and hiring irregularities under Bradley in the bus and rail operations.

A 2006 Inspector General's report slammed Bradley for failing to conduct a criminal background check and manipulating the selection process in giving a sensitive security job to a friend of a friend. The woman, initially hired through a temporary agency, was led from County Hall in handcuffs, charged with stealing cash from her previous employer in Broward County.

Shiver, who did not answer e-mailed questions from the newspaper, was forced out in June 2003, replaced by 20-year County Hall fixture George Burgess, who had spent the preceding nine months working at the school district.

By September, Burgess dismantled Alvarez's empire. Most of the workers returned to transit, except 15 Alvarez loyalists who became the initial staff at the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust.

With the backing of a majority of commissioners and then-Chairwoman Carey-Shuler, Bradley continued hiring as the agency added more buses and briefly rolled out 24-hour Metrorail and Metromover service that had been promised.

The agency proved ill-prepared to train and assimilate more than 1,400 new full-time workers with specialized skill sets in two years.

Under fire for his agency's hiring practices, Bradley paid university researchers to conduct in-depth studies comparing salary and employment levels at similar-sized transit agencies. The studies generally found Miami-Dade Transit on par with Denver, Baltimore and Cleveland.

Yet overtime budgets exploded in those chaotic early days of the tax. Fifteen bus drivers and two train operators grossed more than $100,000 in 2005.

Training supervisor Joseph Tomlin grossed more than $200,000 in overtime, or 42 percent of his pay, between 2003 and 2006. His 2003 overtime set an agency record: $69,111. Tomlin and four other members of his staff grossed more than $50,000 in overtime in 2003.

Tomlin, who just retired, did not respond to repeated messages at his home.

The pre-election deal proved lucrative to hundreds of lower-paid drivers from the now-defunct paratransit division and helped the county fill an immediate need to recruit, train and hire additional bus drivers for all new routes.

A typical former full-time paratransit driver saw his gross salary rise from $19,181 in 2002 to $47,412 in 2007.

The pact also benefited the veteran drivers. Before the contract change, it would have taken 19 years to reach the top of the scale. Now, it takes seven or eight years to reach the top.

The second major contract amendment, in 2003, reclassified most of the bus garage mechanics, technicians and body-shop painters to pay scales equal to their higher-paid counterparts at the transit rail yard and in the private sector. Most received raises ranging between 15 percent and 33 percent.

Bradley said the deal made the agency ''more efficient'' because it kept workers from switching to higher-paying jobs that would require extra training.

The contracts with the drivers and mechanics created a ripple effect throughout the agency.

Over the next four years, 355 members of the Government Supervisors Association of Florida had their salaries adjusted upward, many of them keeping in line with the higher rates that had been awarded to their rank-and-file charges in the TWU.

''I know it looks like there was some sort of quid pro quo for us campaigning for the tax, just like the TWU. But that's not the case,'' said Greg Blackman, president of the supervisors association. He said the deal was ''only fair'' in light of the others.

The Miami Herald found that in 81 cases, unionized managers had their jobs reclassified in late 2002 and early 2003 to higher-paying salaries, with the increases retroactive to two years before the tax passed.

Today, the agency is retrenching. The county has kept the tax -- but leaders are trying to lower expectations for what it can deliver.

Elected in 2004, Mayor Carlos Alvarez was given strong-mayor powers in January 2007. He fired Bradley and several other department heads two months later.

At Alvarez's direction, Bradley's successor, Harpal Kapoor, has been ''right-sizing'' and modernizing the agency, which has shed 523 full-time positions since peaking in March 2006. A large portion were slashed from administrative and clerical areas that had bloated under Bradley's tenure.

''We've gotten rid of a lot of management jobs, and combined some departments. That reduces duplication,'' Kapoor said. ``It's a much more efficient agency now.''

Yet, the broken promises of 2002 still resonate with voters like Barbara Walters, a transit-dependent resident of Miami's Upper East Side.

''We had temporary 24-hour Metrorail, and they cut back,'' she said. ``We had temporary 24-hour bus routes. They disappeared. We had a temporary increase in bus routes. Most of them are cut. But I've seen plenty of people with jobs. They took care of themselves.''