Miami-Dade County

Suarez abandons Miami-Dade salary-cap drive after three weeks

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez The Miami Herald

A push to cap Miami-Dade salaries below $163,000 died only a few weeks after it began, after the county commissioner sponsoring the petition drive announced Wednesday that the logistics were too daunting for him to succeed.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez announced the referendum effort in late January, revealing an initiative that could have been a platform as he weighed a possible challenge against Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. But on Wednesday, during a hearing on his salary proposal, Suarez spoke first and said gathering the required 55,000 signatures by July would be a futile mission.

“I will not proceed with the petition drive,” said Suarez, a former Miami mayor.

The plan was to cap county salaries at what Florida’s Supreme Court justices make, and they currently earn $162,200. The ceiling would have impacted about 120 employees, Suarez said, and meant pay cuts for many of the county’s senior administrators. Critics dismissed the idea as unworkable.

“For some of these departments, you need certain personnel that need to be highly qualified — airport, seaport, obviously the legal department,” said Bruno Barreiro, a county commissioner who said he opposed Suarez’s plan. Barreiro said he understood wanting to rein in high salaries but “across the board? I’m not in favor of it.”

Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández noted the Suarez plan would have impacted a small fraction of Miami-Dade’s nearly 25,000 full-time employees. “This was a solution in search of a problem,” Hernández said.

Suarez cited a string of complications he discovered once he began exploring the practical aspects of a referendum effort, which he announced at a Jan. 28 news conference. The company Suarez planned to hire for the drive wanted to hedge its bets by collecting three times the required signatures in order to compensate for mistakes and ineligible votes. Suarez noted each voter needed to sign a form with four pages, meaning he was looking at turning in about 650,000 pages to get his proposal on the ballot.

Suarez needed signatures from 4 percent of Miami-Dade’s 1.37 million voters within 120 days of filing papers for the petition drive. He turned in his papers on Feb. 6, and had until early July to deliver the needed signatures.

“The process,” Suarez told commissioners, “got really complicated.”

Suarez previewed his change of course during a Spanish-language television interview on Tuesday night. Appearing on Mira TV’s Prohibido Callarse (Silence Banned), Suarez wielded a box full of papers, saying that he was holding a thousand pages and would need “truckloads” more to get the item on the ballot. Even so, Suarez said he was confident voters would embrace his restrictions if given the chance.

“There's no doubt that it would be approved overwhelmingly,” he told host Roberto Rodríguez Tejera. Suarez told commissioners he would like them to consider ceilings for county salaries through the regular legislative process.

County rules required a public hearing after Suarez filed the papers to launch a petition drive. Commission Chairman Jean Monestime convened the hearing during the regular commission meeting Wednesday, with nearly empty chambers before him. Nobody stood to speak for or against Suarez’s plan.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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