The hottest special-interest saga these days at County Hall may be the fight for the coveted baggage-wrapping contract at Miami International Airport.
The latest chapter involves two competitors with such over-the-top dislike for each other that one accuses the other of hiding his finances and compares him to the Miami Marlins. The second likens his firm to John Wayne and counters that his rival has business ties to Cuba.
“It just seems like a movie,” MIA Director José Abreu said. “I don’t know anything else that is more controversial than baggage wrap.”
On Tuesday, Miami-Dade commissioners are scheduled to award the lucrative 10-year contract to TrueStar USA.
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TrueStar is a corporate venture between the airport’s current vendor, Sinapsis Trading USA, and its giant Italian parent, TrueStar Group SpA. In 2010, Sinapsis ousted rival Secure Wrap of Miami, which had held the exclusive baggage-wrapping rights for nine years. Both companies wrap passengers’ baggage with clingy plastic, to prevent theft of the contents.
Sinapsis won after guaranteeing to pay a minimum $11.1 million a year to the county-owned airport — compared to Secure Wrap’s $4.1 million-a-year bid, which was nearly four times more than what the company had historically paid the county.
A year ago, Sinapsis asked the county to reduce its minimum annual fee to $8.7 million, saying its business had been hurt when Secure Wrap began wrapping baggage at locations outside the airport.
Commissioners reluctantly agreed to the reduction, but only after deciding to put out a new bid for the concession. Sinapsis’ five-year contract was cut to one more year. The new bid went out after commissioners — heavily lobbied by both sides — dug unusually deep into the weeds of the bid language, which is typically handled by professional county administrators.
The bid also briefly became an issue in Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s reelection campaign. Opponent Joe Martinez, then the commission chairman, suggested from the dais that the mayor had waffled by allowing Sinapsis to reduce its fee to the county after warning the company two years earlier that it had better live up to its lofty projections. Gimenez said it was better to lower the fee than leave the airport without any revenue or wrapping services while a new bid went out.
Sinapsis bid again, under its new TrueStar name. So did Secure Wrap, now as a joint venture named Safe Wrap of Florida. The committee judging the bids gave Safe Wrap a higher score on technical merits. But TrueStar won because it offered a higher payment: $9.6 million or 65 percent of its monthly gross revenues, whichever is higher, compared to the $9.1 million or 52 percent offered by Safe Wrap.
TrueStar has asked for the ability to charge maximum higher wrapping fees than Sinapsis, which has the ability to charge $18 for small bags — though it currently charges $15. As part of its new contract, TrueStar wants to charge up to $20 for small bags, with higher prices for larger ones.
Safe Wrap protested based on several claims, including that TrueStar was not a properly registered joint venture in Florida, had filed incomplete forms and based its bid on “wholly unsustainable” and “irrational” projections. Last month, a hearing examiner upheld the county’s decision.
Now it must be ratified by commissioners. A two-thirds majority vote would be required to overturn the recommendation, airport director Abreu said.
“It went through a process,” he said. “I think it was a process that was agreed upon by everybody and endorsed by the board.”
Still, Tuesday’s meeting could turn into a forum for the firms to repeat the charges they have leveled against each other for months.
Safe Wrap President Radames Villalon complained Sinapsis was underreporting the revenue it shares with the county by operating more baggage-wrapping machines at the airport than the 31 it is allowed to have. That prompted a county audit, which concluded in December.
The audit did not find more machines or inaccurately reported revenue. But it did find other issues. Among them: The machines only record a $15 rate per wrapped bag, although Sinapsis offers varying prices. The company keeps manual receipts for other sales, which are more difficult to track, the audit found.
And while the contract requires Sinapsis to keep its financial records in the United States and make them available to the county, auditors couldn’t trace daily sales totals, which Sinapsis said are maintained at a corporate office in Italy. And most of the firm’s financial records at MIA are kept in Italian or Spanish, not English.
“They didn’t want to give the numbers — it’s very similar to the Marlins,” said Villalon, comparing his competition to the baseball team that refused to open its books before the county agreed to build it a new stadium. “The county should know that they’re not a responsible company.”
Nonsense, said TrueStar President Fabio Talin, who said his company is making the changes suggested by the audit.
He has returned his rival’s fire, complaining to the county that hiring Safe Wrap might violate a challenged Florida law prohibiting local governments from hiring companies with business ties to Cuba. The reason: Safe Wrap is a joint venture between the Miami-based Secure Wrap and Safe Bag USA, a subsidiary of the Italian firm Safe Bag Italia SRL. The father of the owner of Safe Bag Italia used to head an airline with flights between Italy and Cuba, Talin wrote.
Villalon said last week that the airline has since been sold. It’s unclear whether any link to the airline would have violated the new state law, which was blocked from taking effect by a federal judge in Miami. The state has appealed.
Talin also noted that Sinapsis has paid the county a far higher monthly fee, even after its reduction, than Secure Wrap did when it held the concession.
“Or we’re Mandrake the magician, or probably that gentleman did not report his revenues correctly,” Talin said of Villalon.
Villalon dismissed the suggestion that his company was underreporting its revenues. He pointed to TrueStar affiliates being unable to live up to contracts in other countries: “They’re overbidding the contract to create a monopoly.”
Countered Talin: “We are strong around the world because we’re like John Wayne. Good always wins.”