Months ago, when he announced that his city was on the brink of a financial emergency, Sweetwater Mayor Orlando López contacted the state government for help. He says he never got an answer.
So he turned to an unlikely source: Miami, a city not-so-long removed from its own budget debacle.
Starting Monday, Miami will begin sending three employees from its finance department to the west Miami-Dade suburb to try and help the flailing city balance its books. Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso announced the move this week, saying the employees will spend at least one week poring over Sweetwater’s finances, and perhaps as long as one month.
“They’re doing what the city of Miami did many years ago,” said Mayor Tomás Regalado, referring to assistance the city received from the state during a financial crisis during the ’90s. “We asked for support many years ago when I was on the commission. So I think it’s a good thing, helping a neighboring city.”
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But by jumping in to help Sweetwater with its finances, Regalado’s city is inserting itself into a political imbroglio.
Everything in Sweetwater is controversial.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado
The turmoil surrounding the city’s roughly $18 million budget is at least partly the result of infighting between López and the City Commission. In January, López, who runs the city’s administration, sued the commission, alleging that it had passed an unbalanced budget and attempted to administer the city through legislation. Commissioners in turn sued him for refusing to follow their directives and asked a judge to force the mayor to follow their budget.
Regalado said he almost immediately received a call from a Sweetwater commissioner inquiring about why he was sending employees to look over the city’s books.
“I know everything in Sweetwater is controversial and there are some commissioners saying that this is to help the mayor. It’s not,” he said.
On Thursday, López said the department is in need of two extra workers to help handle a backlog of work in the finance department, since its employees are now working on the 2016-17 budget.
“The other employee will conduct a mini audit to help answer the two million dollar question,” Lopez said in reference to a $2 million grant reimbursement from the federal government that the city was supposed to use to pay the balance of a line of credit — but never did.
It is unprofessional to put the city’s finances in the hands of auditors who come from another municipality.
Commission President Jose M. Diaz
Former Mayor Jose M. Diaz and finance director Ricardo Mendez dispute where the money went. Diaz told El Nuevo Herald that Mendez secretly spent the money on payroll. Claudia Miro, a city spokeswoman, said the money was spent with Diaz’s approval, and went to cover unbudgeted expenses, such as retroactive salary increases and the police retirement fund. Part of the money was used to pay lawsuit settlements that followed the arrest and conviction of former Mayor Manny Maroño in a public corruption sting.
Yet another part of the money went to pay for the operating costs of a center for the elderly after the state refused to disburse funds promised for the center because an audit had revealed mismanagement in 2012.
“I am sure Mayor Regalado is lending a helping hand to show solidarity with the administration of Orlando López, probably because a friend asked him a favor,” said Diaz, now president of the Sweetwater commission. “But I think it is unprofessional to put the city’s finances in the hands of auditors who come from another municipality when we have our own auditors and the city has gone through audits already.”