Francis Suarez was sworn in Wednesday as the 34th mayor of Miami in a private ceremony on the second floor of historic City Hall in Coconut Grove.
Surrounded by friends and family, and with his father, former Miami mayor Xavier Suárez looking on, he took the oath of office with his hand on a Bible held by his wife. The ceremony took place at noon, the earliest he could be sworn in following his election on Nov. 7. The public swearing-in will be at 3:30 p.m., also at City Hall.
He replaces Tomás Regalado.
Suarez comes into office with big ideas, and — unlike Regalado — money to see some of them through. But he also faces some immediate challenges.
With four years to go until the next mayoral election, he’ll have until 2021 to make headway. Here are a few things to watch for as he takes the reins.
▪ Perhaps the most pressing issue facing Miami’s new mayor is the money that the city’s police and fire pension fund believes it’s owed after a series of court rulings overturned pay and pension cuts imposed in 2010 on the city’s employees. Late last month, the board that oversees the pension trust directed fund managers to undo changes made by the city during the recession, which a consultant estimates will cost taxpayers $213 million.
The city and its police union are still waiting to hear what the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission will say about the back-wages owed the city’s Fraternal Order of Police chapter. But Suarez, who voted in favor of the controversial cuts as a commissioner, has said he intends to try and negotiate a settlement that will keep the city from going bankrupt and also appease the unions.
“It is definitely something that I’m unfortunately inheriting,” Suarez said Sunday during an appearance on WPLG’s “This Week in South Florida.” “I’m going to have to face it head-on.”
Broken down by year, the money owed the pension fund could cost as much as $23 million annually. Regalado, who pushed the cuts in 2010 when the city was on the brink of financial collapse, remains dubious about the amount owed the fund and believes the city needs to keep fighting.
“I am convinced Francis Suarez knows the consequences if we blink,” he said.
▪ Suarez is all-in on the Miam-Dade SMART Plan as a viable option for mass transportation. As a leader on the county’s regional transportation planning board, he branded the plan to bring six new commuter lines to Miami-Dade County and was among the local politicians who recoiled a little when County Mayor Carlos Gimenez recommended that the county shift to expanding a rapid bus fleet instead of dreaming of rail given the lack of available funding.
While money remains a problem, Suarez believes South Florida can successfully push for money from Tallahassee and the federal government and created a special mass transit account at the city to establish potential matching funds for grants.
▪ Voters gave Suarez a $400 million gift this month when they passed the Miami Forever general obligation bond, agreeing to tax themselves in order to pay for expensive storm drain upgrades, affordable housing and economic development grants.
Ironically, Suarez voted against placing the bond on the Nov. 7 ballot, saying it was hastily prepared by Regalado’s administration, but then voted for the proposal on election day at the ballot box. Now, he’ll inherit close to a half-billion dollars with which he can pursue solutions to some of Miami’s most systemic problems.
City commissioners will have more say than the mayor over what happens with the money, as will a civilian oversight board. But Suarez — who talked about sea-rise and housing as priorities on election night — will have the bully pulpit and the ability to lobby commissioners on what to do with the new-found resources.
▪ Who will Suarez tap to take over the city’s day-to-day operations as city manager and police chief?
Current City Manager Daniel Alfonso will be out by Jan. 10. And Suarez’s pick to replace him is likely to be a caretaker candidate, given that Suarez wants to resurrect a strong mayor push that would give the mayor the ability to run the city and make personnel decisions.
Suarez has told people at City Hall that he’s narrowed the candidates down to a small group, but says he hasn’t found a new administrator yet. Emilio Gonzalez, who submitted his resignation Tuesday as CEO of Miami International Airport, is rumored to be a leading contender.
Suarez will also be able to pick a new police chief. Under Miami’s charter, the mayor can’t tell the manager who to hire. But nothing tells him he can’t tell a manager candidate who to hire to replace Rodolfo “Rudy” Llanes, who is expected to finally retire in March.
▪ Speaking of the strong mayor initiative, Suarez plans to resurrect his push to change the city’s charter in order to empower the city’s mostly ceremonial mayor as an administrator.
Voters gave the city’s top post “executive” powers in 1997, allowing the mayor to hire and fire a city manager, choose the City Commission’s chairman, veto legislation and set the budget. But Suarez says the system has proved dysfunctional, since it also gives some similar powers to commissioners and forces the city’s top administrator to serve two masters — the mayor and commission — with what can often be conflicting opinions.
Suarez can try to convince commissioners to place the initiative on the ballot, or push the proposal through a petition drive.