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The Politics of Palms

The American Dream, Dade County style: A chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage -- and royal palms on every street.

Driven by Metro commissioners, the county is on a palm- buying spree, spending millions of dollars in gasoline taxes to green county roadways. Since last summer, the greening of Dade has cost more than $7 million for thousands of trees that have popped up from Miami Gardens Drive in North Dade to Avocado Drive in Homestead.

The trees are like political bacon, brought home by commissioners to their districts.

"The palms are a tangible way of showing people that taxes are having an impact on their community, " said District 9 Commissioner Dennis Moss. "The trees show we are being responsive. . . . .I have been assured my district will get its fair share of trees."

Moss is not alone. The county has its hands full handling tree requests from other commissioners as well. The pols' most popular palm: a stately variety with sentimental value -- the royal palm, national tree of Cuba.

Last summer, county officials estimated Metro would buy 800 royal palms over the next two years. In just the past eight months, they bought 8,000.

"Commissioners get a lot of neighborhood requests for them, " said acting public works director Pedro Hernandez, whose department handles roadside landscaping. "The royal palms have immediate impact when planted."

Most of the royal palms were purchased from Manuel Diaz Farms, whose owner and namesake contributes regularly to commission election campaigns and sometimes holds gala fund- raisers on his South Dade plantation.

Top recipients in recent years included Moss and District 8 Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who launched an ambitious planting drive last year called "10,000 Trees for South Dade."

Moss received $4,000 in December from Diaz family interests for his re-election race, records show. The commissioner said Diaz, whose farm straddles his South Dade district, is a constituent who shares his interest in giving Dade a "tropical signature" with palms.

"I've talked to Diaz in reference to planting trees throughout Dade County, " Moss said. "There is no connection, " the commissioner said, to Diaz's political contributions.

Sorenson collected $5,500 from Diaz interests for her 1994 election campaign, records show. She said the tree-planting campaign was her own idea, and didn't recall discussing it with Diaz.

"Manny Diaz was nice enough to support me, but they are completely separate issues, " Sorenson said. "My tree planting campaign is absolutely for the good of District 8."

Sorenson said the idea was born in a post-election staff meeting as a way to help her district further recover from Hurricane Andrew's devastation.

"I made it a priority, " she said. "We found out that gas tax money was available and that kind of kicked it off."

Grass-roots groups, primarily homeowners' associations, proposed the planting locations for trees. "People are really happy with the trees, " Sorenson said. "It's been spiritually uplifting."

The political clamor for palms has gotten so hot that County Manager Armando Vidal recently established a special committee just to referee tree orders -- and make sure the projects are divvied up judiciously among the county's 13 commissioners.

"It got to the point where we couldn't handle all the requests, " Hernandez said. "The demand was exceeding the money we had."

The latest round of planting was inspired by the 1994 Summit of the Americas, when the county spent nearly $5 million dressing up central Dade highways for foreign dignitaries -- with the cost of the 25,000 trees covered mostly by gas taxes.

Afterward, commissioners representing outlying South Dade districts demanded their share. "My district came up short after the summit, " Moss said. "I raised hell about it."

Vidal responded to commissioners by earmarking a big chunk of Metro's two-cent-a-gallon secondary gas tax for greening roadways -- a levy that raises about $12 million a year.

Commissioners have been lobbying for their piece of the action ever since:

* Since last summer, when Sorenson announced "10,000 Trees for South Dade, " her office has swamped the county with street- planting sites -- so many that county manager Vidal diplomatically suggested that Sorenson's latest wish list was a bit out of line.

"Your cooperation to prioritize the listing will prove beneficial to planting District 8, " Vidal advised Sorenson in a March 28 memo. "The listing as presented represents a projected cost of $4.15 million or 30 percent of the secondary gas tax."

* In a Jan. 25 letter to Gov. Lawton Chiles, District 10 commissioner Javier Souto noted his success in getting royal palms planted for constituents living in the neighborhood south of Florida International University along the turnpike. Souto wanted Tallahassee to cut red tape to speed up the planting of more trees in the area.

"The Dade County Public Works Department has planted under my direction over $100,000 worth of landscaping to buffer the residential community from the turnpike, " Souto wrote to Chiles. "I also requested some shade trees, some flowering trees and some mature palm trees that complement the tropical Hispanic flavor of the neighborhood."

Souto collected $2,000 in campaign donations from Diaz interests in 1994, records show. The commissioner is out of the country this month and could not be reached.

* In January, Moss reminded Vidal of his constituents' desires.

"Needless to say, I have received numerous inquiries from citizens asking: 'When are we going to get our trees?' " Moss wrote to Vidal on Jan. 25. "I have personally toured the district and identified locations for initial plantings. I trust that 'mature palms' similar to those planted in other communities will be used."

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