Miami-Dade County

Lobbyist Ron Book calling the shots in Miami-Dade’s homeless fight

Ron Book, chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, talks to a married, homeless couple who were camped out underneath a bridge in January 2015. Book, along with a team of workers and volunteers, were participating in the annual count of the homeless population.
Ron Book, chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, talks to a married, homeless couple who were camped out underneath a bridge in January 2015. Book, along with a team of workers and volunteers, were participating in the annual count of the homeless population. Miami Herald Staff

When Miami-Dade’s homeless board convened for the first time Friday to grapple with the loss of nearly $6 million in federal aid, chairman Ronald Book did most of the talking and all of the table pounding.

The prominent lobbyist delivered a tirade about conflicts he saw between Washington’s goal of ending homelessness and its recent decision to deny grant requests from Miami-Dade’s domestic-violence shelters, drug-treatment centers and other providers that Book described as the biggest financial blow to ever hit the local agency.

“What makes me angry is that cutoff at the knees,” said Book, his voice nearing a shout in a County Hall conference room, the diamonds in an oversized ring catching the light as his clenched fist made contact with the plastic conference table. “To dump people out on the street is stupid. And it’s dumb. And it’s inconsistent.”

The funding squeeze looming for charity providers and the 700 beds backed by the federal dollars presents the latest test for Book and his enduring post atop Miami-Dade’s homeless programs. A leading campaign donor who is a paid lobbyist for Miami-Dade itself in Tallahassee, Book has consistently won county waivers to extend his tenure as chairman of the Homeless Trust, which oversees both the agency and the bar-and-restaurant tax that funds it.

Unlike chairs of county boards overseeing the transit tax, hospital tax and children-services tax, Book serves as the public face of the county’s homeless arm, with director Victoria Mallette, a former county spokeswoman, generally declining on-the-record interviews. “Ron is the only authorized spokesperson,” Lisa Mozloom, an executive with the public-relations agency working for the Homeless Trust, wrote in a text message Friday.

Last year, Miami sued to force the Homeless Trust to spend $100,000 on sleeping mats so that the city’s overflowing homeless shelter could house people outside. Book refused, saying mats were an undignified violation of long-standing federal policy to invest in beds. He also dismissed a more expensive plan to have the trust pay for portable restrooms to cut down on Miami’s homeless defecating in the city’s business district, which boosters outlined with a digital “poop map” that drew national attention.

The two sides ultimately brokered a compromise that ended the mat program in favor of adding county-funded beds elsewhere. The deal came after critics blasted Book for being more concerned with proving his dominance of the county’s homeless policy than in making a reasonable course change to help Miami.

“The Trust was a macabre experience,” former Miami city commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who led the city’s fight for mats and toilets, said Friday. “I think it’s time for a total review by the county, and every municipality, to see if it’s equipped to do what it’s supposed to be doing.”

On May 2, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced $355 million in grant awards that contained bad news for Miami-Dade: Of the roughly $6 million it requested, only about $200,000 was granted. The Junior League of Miami’s Inn Transition domestic-violence shelters lost out on about $900,000, as did a job-training program run by Jewish Community Services. The New Hope drug-rehab center in Homestead was denied a $430,000 grant.

“We help people living in their cars. We help people living in parks,” said Robert Berman, housing coordinator for Lutheran Services’ Access program, which provides security deposits for homeless who have a little income but not the money needed to start a lease. “Hopefully something can be done. Otherwise, we have to shut down.”

About 40 percent of the county’s $59 million homeless budget comes from a 1 percent tax attached to bills at restaurants and bars located outside of hotels across Miami-Dade. Federal dollars account for more than half.

HUD divides funding requests into two tiers, with the first all but guaranteed and the second thrown into a pool where each agency must compete with counterparts across the country. Last year, the second tier was nominal — just 2 percent of an agency’s existing federal funding. But this year, HUD told agencies that 15 percent of their prior funding would shift to the second tier.

That move created a nationwide competition that Book said cost Miami-Dade more money than any other agency in the country.

HUD gives priority to programs that place the homeless in long-term housing — such as rental subsidies in for-profit apartment buildings. The federal agency also has been steering local providers away from short-term housing options in group settings, such as a domestic-violence shelter or drug-treatment home. Those facilities typically limit stays to 24 months at the most, while long-term housing can last indefinitely.

By making the grants more competitive, a HUD spokesman said the agency wanted to push providers away from “transitional” beds and into permanent programs.

“We have these goals,” said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan. “We’ve got to get there.”

The denied funds from Washington put Book under pressure on two fronts — he is seen as the de facto head of an agency that failed to secure crucial grant money, and he’s now using his political heft to wage an appeal for the funds.

If we’ve got a placement that’s out of order, it’s got to be run by me. I’m involved in the day-to-day activities of reviewing what we do.

Ron Book, longtime chairman of Miami-Dade’s homeless board

“Miss Mallette has listened to my multiple upon multiple conversations with Congressman [Mario] Diaz-Balart,” Book told board members at the meeting Friday. “Not a third-level, fifth-level, ninth-level staff, but to the congressman directly. There is a reason that Senator [Marco] Rubio called from Iraq. It’s because we have a community that cares.”

State records list more than 100 lobbying clients for Book, including the counties of Broward and Palm Beach, 18 cities, the University of Miami and the Miami Dolphins. The 62-year-old said the Miami Heat isn’t a client, but that the 2013 championship ring he wears reflects his devotion to the team (Alonzo Mourning and Dwyane Wade are “close friends,” he said). His daughter, Lauren, is running for state Senate in Broward County.

He has served on the Homeless board since it started in 1994, and he has been its chairman since 2006. County commissioners consistently waive the board’s six-year term limit so that he can retain his seat. In the 2014 commission elections, Book gave $37,000 combined to all six incumbents running, enough to put him in the Top 20 list of donors for that cycle, according to a Miami Herald campaign-finance database.

Book raised eyebrows in 2014 when he backed Mallette for the $142,000-a-year director job at the Homeless Trust. Mallette’s sister, Kelly, is director of governmental affairs and a top deputy in Book’s Aventura lobbying firm. Mallette — who was communications chief when Carlos Alvarez served as county mayor and then took a fund-raising post at the Parks Department — brought no social-services background to the position. Book said the board was eager for “new eyes” at the agency.

Despite Mallette’s communications expertise, the trust continued its $143,000-a-year contract with Miami’s M Network for media and public-relations services. (That fee includes a $53,000 budget for promotional materials and other reimbursable expenses.) Book describes himself as a “strong chairman” who insists that Mallette and her deputies get approval before getting creative with housing dollars.

“If we’ve got a placement that’s out of order, it’s got to be run by me,” Book said. “I’m involved in the day-to-day activities of reviewing what we do.

“Ask what is the chairman’s favorite word. I promise you, to the person, they will say ‘free.’ I’m cheap and I’m frugal,” he continued. “I treat these tax dollars more importantly than my own money.”

Two years into the job, Mallette knows many of the homeless men and women who linger by the fountain outside County Hall. Regular visitors to the building see her talking to them about services the county offers. At Friday’s meeting, she walked providers through sticking points of HUD funding priorities and said the agency hopes to find enough dollars to keep their programs afloat through the fall.

“What do you need to continue those programs,” asked Mallette, who declined an interview for this story. “We are going to have to morph into something different and more streamlined. . . . We’re going to have to rethink how we do transitional. Because it’s going to have to be done locally ”

Other agencies also are reeling after losses in HUD funds; Tampa said 200 temporary beds are endangered by a loss of $800,000 in Tier 2 money. Programs in Arizona, New York, and Indiana also reported surprising setbacks from HUD, according to news reports.

After the HUD decision, Book faced questions about why Miami-Dade didn’t try to game the grant process better by putting programs likely to score well in the second tier and less secure applicants in the safer first tier. But that also would have put some of the county’s most successful long-term housing programs at risk. On Friday, he was also challenged on a decision to offer up $900,000 in local money for new projects when so many existing providers are scrambling to replace federal dollars.

“You don’t build a swimming pool when your kitchen is on fire,” said David Raymond, a former Homeless Trust director who now serves as a consultant to providers in Miami and across the country.

Book sees some vindication in the latest crisis: During the mat controversy, Miami leaders had mocked the Trust for “hoarding” millions of dollars in reserves while ignoring the city’s plight, but that $7 million rainy-day fund is now being looked at to cushion missing HUD grants.

“I’m a strong personality,” he said. “I’m here to lead.”

Homeless services funding

Some of the top Miami-Dade homeless-grant requests denied by HUD:

Project Hope, a job-training program by Jewish Community Services: $909,998

Inn Transition South, a Homestead domestic-violence shelter owned by the Junior League: $727,681

Regeneration, a drug-treatment facility by New Hope Corps: $433,494

Access, a rental-help program by Lutheran Services: $416,216

Mental Health Initiative, a service offered by Camillus House: $346,192