Miami-Dade County

Miami commissioners give selves millions to spend on grants, capital projects

Left to right: Commissioners Francis Suarez, Frank Carollo, Keon Hardemon, Ken Russell, and Wifredo “Willy” Gort
Left to right: Commissioners Francis Suarez, Frank Carollo, Keon Hardemon, Ken Russell, and Wifredo “Willy” Gort

As Miami’s finances have rebounded from near collapse, the city’s elected officials have tapped into overflowing coffers to obtain greater individual control over how millions of dollars are spent on brick-and-mortar projects and community grants.

Over the last 18 months, city commissioners have voted to award themselves and Mayor Tomás Regalado more than $24 million in combined taxpayer funds to spend within their districts. Their latest set-aside came Thursday, when they voted to give $1 million to the office of every elected official to fund capital projects of his or her choice after learning the city has an estimated $27 million surplus this year.

Commissioners say the money — which they’ve spent on everything from downtown toilets to youth summer programs — has addressed some of Miami’s most critical needs. And the dollars can’t be spent without the consent of the full commission, although no one’s ever had an expense rejected.

“They know their districts best,” said city manager Daniel Alfonso, whose administration proposed the creation of office allotments.

They [commissioners] know their districts best.

city manager Daniel Alfonso

Still, such types of discretionary spending typically raises eyebrows, because they increase the potential that awards will be based on political motivation. Katy Sorenson, a former county commissioner and president of the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami, said commissioners’ capital accounts make sense, since they are elected to address needs in the community and are choosing the project but not the contractor. But she questioned the city’s process for awarding anti-poverty grants, most of which have been approved by waiving bidding requirements.

“Those kinds of initiatives should go through processes that have objectives and criteria,” she said. “It also unfortunately can look like political favoritism.”

In general, commissioners and the mayor have been the stewards of modest discretionary funds. This year, commissioners received a combined $2.6 million for their offices, and Regalado received a little more than $1 million. But commissioners began to direct money to elected officials’ offices after it became clear Miami finally had money to spend.

They set aside $3.5 million combined for anti-poverty grants, distributed among commissioners based on poverty levels in their districts. And at the urging of Regalado’s administration, each commissioner, plus the mayor, has received $3.5 million for capital projects of their choosing, including Thursday’s allotment.

$3.5 million Amount set aside for anti-poverty grants, distributed among commissioners based on poverty levels in their districts.

Regalado used his capital account for a porta potty “Pit Stop” program in downtown Miami and pledged a $1 million makeover of Calle Ocho. Commissioners Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Francis Suarez said they’ve largely funded street projects.

“It’s all meat and potatoes,” Suarez said.

Newly elected Commissioner Ken Russell said the money was gone by the time he entered office. Frank Carollo and Chairman Keon Hardemon, meanwhile, said they haven’t yet decided how to spend their offices’ capital dollars.

As for anti-poverty dollars, they’ve been used to create the $200,000 Commissioner Willy Gort Scholarship Program, a tech summer camp, and a $235,000 marine services technology academy at Lindsey Hopkins Technical Center. As the representative of Miami’s poorest district, Hardemon has allocated more than $1.1 million for youth summer programs, a seniors feeding service, and a student tutoring and college exposure program. About half his office’s money was awarded to the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp. to pay for a community kitchen incubator and wheels to work program that was just re-upped after last year helping six people in need of transportation land low-interest loans for new Nissan Versas.

“My life has completely changed,” Yolanda Brooks, a car recipient, told commissioners last month.

Hardemon said allowing commissioners to address specific needs in their districts is “a smart investment” by the city. He also disagreed with a reporter’s description of the accounts as “discretionary,” saying the expenditures need commission approval.

”I don’t think we have greater discretion,” he said. “The discretion is still the same. [The commission] is the ultimate decision maker on the budget.”

Regalado said city commissioners have given themselves millions before. Back in 2001, when he was a city commissioner, he said each district received millions in bond money. He said the discretion on how to spend the money means more residents’ complaints are addressed.

“Our public works department has a list of priorities. They go by technical issues,” he said. “The commission goes by residents’ requests.”