Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a potential 2016 mayoral candidate, is preparing a petition drive to establish a cap on county employees’ salaries.
The commissioner has filed a proposed petition that, if approved, would allow him to collect signatures to put a salary cap on the ballot next year — the same year that incumbent Mayor Carlos Gimenez faces reelection.
Suarez wants to prevent workers from earning more than Florida Supreme Court Justices. At the moment, that’s $162,200 — far less than the $200,000 to $300,000 paid to the county’s top earners in 2013, according to an earlier analysis by the Miami Herald. Many of those employees were in the county attorney’s office, and Suarez seized on the report as revealing something that needed to be fixed.
“Somebody has to tell Mr. Gimenez that the folks out there aren’t happy with the 1-percenters in government,” Suarez told the Herald in an interview Wednesday.
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He later held a County Hall news conference to publicize the campaign. Suarez said he plans to spend at least $100,000 from his political action committee, Imagine Miami, to hire a signature-collection agency when Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin signs off on the petition language. Ruvin said Suarez’s initial draft was incomplete because he did not attach a separate document with the proposed ordinance and title in English, Spanish and Creole.
Once his paperwork is in order, Suarez said he will first try to get commissioners to adopt the policy voluntarily. But he doesn’t think that they will, so then he’ll have 120 days to secure signatures from at least 4 percent of the county’s 1.3 million voters — about 52,000 people. If he meets the signature threshold, Suarez’s measure would go on the ballot for the next general election, likely in August 2016.
High salaries are a concrete example of needed government reform, Suarez said at the news conference, where he rattled off other problems he sees at County Hall.
“It’s partly symbolic,” he said. “Somebody has to shake up the bureaucracy.”
Gimenez spokesman Mike Hernández noted that Suarez has “consistently voted to raise taxes, which would have resulted in salary increases and more expensive benefits for employees.”
Suarez’s proposal wouldn’t apply to the mayor, commissioners or county attorney (County Attorney Robert Cuevas is the highest-paid employee, at about $327,000 a year). But it would apply to assistant county attorneys, deputy mayors and other administrators, including some assistant directors and managers. At the news conference, Suarez handed out a list of 111 positions — out of the county’s 25,000 workers — who are paid more than $162,200 a year. He said bumping all of them down would save about $5 million from the county’s $6.2 billion budget.
Suarez dismissed criticism that a salary cap would make it difficult for the county to attract and retain talent, saying government offers better fringe benefits and job security.
Ann Machado, CEO of the Creative Staffing placement firm with offices in Kendall and Miami Lakes, said $162,000 is a respectable figure for a management position. A salary of $162,000 “will buy you an upper-management person with an MBA, some decent degree and a number of years of experience,” she said.
But hiring someone with expertise can be more costly, she added. As for lawyers and accountants, Machado said $162,000 may be acceptable as base pay even for someone seeking a partner position. However, the bonuses and profit-sharing of the private sector will move actual compensation higher.
“Those people are easily going to be making $200,000 or $250,000,” she said.
The petition drive would give Suarez a platform — and welcome media coverage — as he considers challenging Gimenez. The commissioner, who has been fundraising to either run for mayor or for reelection, has already invited supporters to an Oct. 10 fundraiser. That date is tied to Cuba’s fight for independence, so Suarez could see it as the appropriate time for the city of Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor to formally step in the race (Gimenez was also born on the island.).
In one of the emailed invitations reviewed by the Herald, there’s no explanation from Suarez for the nine-month advance notice. The email mentions the salary-cap plan obliquely and includes indirect criticism of Gimenez’s tenure.
“[T]here is no visionary plan to improve mass transit or make our county a livable, sustainable, prospering community,” Suarez wrote. “Instead, we have a proliferation of tolls that tax us for using highways built and financed decades ago.”
Suarez said he’s taking the extraordinary petition step because his efforts to lower county salaries have been rebuffed by Gimenez and by his colleagues, who last year rejected a suggestion from Commissioner Juan C. Zapata to cap salaries. Suarez has also failed to gain administration traction for other pet ideas — including putting the portion of the MacArthur Causeway that traverses downtown underground — so he could be positioning himself as a contender willing to forgo a run if Gimenez champions his ideas.
Gimenez has begun calling large donors to support his reelection campaign.