An ill-fated request for tuition reimbursement caused outgoing Miami-Dade Commissioner Juan C. Zapata a big political headache last year. Now one of his final pieces of county legislation seeks to block any commissioner from making the same kind of request.
Zapata, who is leaving the commission next month after abruptly dropping his reelection bid in July, won unanimous support Tuesday in a preliminary vote for his bill. It would establish a $5,000 cap on the educational expenses that the 13 commissioners can cover for themselves out of their district budgets. For 2017, each commissioner has about $950,000 to allocate from his or her district fund.
In August 2015, Zapata approved about $31,000 from his District 11 office budget to cover tuition expenses at Harvard for a masters in public administration he began pursuing that summer. Zapata got the OK from the county attorney’s office for the expense, but gave the money back once Univision began inquiring about the reimbursement.
Zapata cited media coverage of the incident as one of the reasons he gave up his reelection fight against challenger Joe Martinez, Zapata’s predecessor in District 11. Zapata regularly declines interview requests with County Hall reporters. On Tuesday, asked about his legislation, Zapata replied: “I’m not talking about that.”
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He did issue a response to questions from the Miami New Times about the ordinance for a story that ran Monday. “My personal motivation was to prevent something like this from happening to somebody else in the future,” Zapata told the publication in an email.
Zapata’s ordinance, which still faces a final vote before the County Commission, follows an Ethics Commission report that cleared Zapata on the tuition matter but suggested restrictions on what the commissioners can authorize for their own educational expenses. “While it seems reasonable to allow Commissioners to attend seminars and/or educational programs,” the report stated, “reasonable limits should be placed on such expenditures of public funds.”
The October 2015 report suggested commissioners pursuing degrees apply for the county’s tuition reimbursement program, which covers half of a county staffer’s educational expenses if deemed relevant to the employee’s position.
At the time of the Harvard imbroglio, Zapata insisted he did not intend to have taxpayers pay for his master’s degree (which he completed this year).
Commissioners in the past had used county funds to pay for a three-week Harvard course that costs about $13,000. Zapata said he was contemplating a switch to the shorter program after realizing the time demands of pursuing a masters. Internal emails from his staff and county budget officials did not mention the reimbursement possibility, but Zapata said he always planned to pay for the masters degree himself if opted to stick with it.
“The cleanest transaction was for the county to pay it,” Zapata said at the time. “Then I would reimburse what was needed.”