When Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado leaves City Hall these days, he is frequently followed by a police officer in a truck.
The officer and the truck aren’t there to protect the mayor. They’re there to mock him.
The white delivery truck bears a cartoonish image of Regalado and a cryptic message on both sides: “Real eyes realize real lies.”
The truck crashed the city’s 116th birthday party in Mary Brickell Village, and showed up at the grand reopening of Gibson Park in Overtown. Sometimes, it weaves through the streets near City Hall.
Behind the wheel: a police officer who says he’s fed up. Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Javier Ortiz blames Regalado for the aging fleet of patrol cars, the dingy uniforms, the scaled-back training, the sinking morale. He says the mayor has been less than responsible with the city’s finances, and that the $60 million in cuts to the police department over the past four years have jeopardized public safety. Any further cuts, he said, would be disastrous.
He’s taking that message to the streets.
“I want to go anywhere [Regalado] goes,” Ortiz said.
The mayor says he actually likes having the truck around.
“I have to thank them because the picture is pretty good,” Regalado said. “I look younger and with more hair.”
The picture aside, Regalado sees the truck as “an exercise in futility.” He pointed out that the Miami City Commission still has to cut $40 million from its $485 million operating budget and has already set the maximum tax rate.
“The union has to understand the economic reality,” Regalado said. “They are going to have to make concessions this year.”
The union may not have a choice.
As in the previous two years, the city manager has invoked what’s known as “financial urgency,” meaning the City Commission can change employee contracts without union consent. City budget managers have proposed reforming the pension plan, raising the retirement age and charging officers for their take-home cars, among other measures.
If concessions are imposed, Ortiz said, at least 50 officers are ready to quit. That would add to the existing shortage of about 100 officers in a department of about 1,000.
Ortiz pointed out that police officers have already increased their pension contributions, given up holidays, agreed to higher insurance premiums and had their supplemental pay slashed. The budget cuts have also led to equipment shortages. Ortiz said officers no longer get Tasers or bullets for training exercises. About 100 of the city’s 500 patrol cars are more than seven years old, he said.
“We’re not asking for raises,” Ortiz said. “We’re just asking to be compensated fairly and get the resources we need to do the job and go home safely.”
Ortiz got the truck to drive the point home.
“They follow me around,” Regalado told The Miami Herald in a phone call from Argentina, where he was meeting with the mayor of Buenos Aires. “I’m surprised they didn’t follow me here.”
Having a police tail has its benefits, the mayor said.
“I actually feel safer whenever the truck is around me because there are cops there,” he said.
The campaign also has a website: regaladolies.com. The catch phrase Real Eyes Realize Real Lies is also the title of a song by the heavy metal band Machine Head that advocates radical social change.
“The mayor says the quality of services hasn’t gone down, but it has,” Ortiz said. “He said he wouldn’t cut from the police department. That was a lie, too.”
Sending a message
Not so, says Regalado.
“We knew we would have to make cuts this year,” the mayor said. “There is nothing hidden in this budget.”
He noted that the proposed budget increases spending from last year on police uniforms, physicals, guns and Tasers.
It will be up to the City Commission to finalize the budget in September. It isn’t clear if commissioners will take Regalado’s recommendations or consider suggestions from the union.
“I’m in favor of improving the environment and giving the police the resources they need to protect us,” Commission Vice Chairman Marc Sarnoff said. “That means new cars, Tasers and training.”
Commission Chairman Francis Suarez said pension reform and other cuts would likely be necessary.
“We’re in a position where we have to reduce expenses,” he said. “Hopefully we can get there in a cooperative fashion.”
As for the truck, the mayor, who isn’t up for reelection until 2013, said the union was wasting members’ money on the stunt.
Ortiz wouldn’t disclose the cost.
“The point is, we are moving forward with this budget and this [tax rate],” Regalado said. “There is nothing they can do about it.”
But until the budget is done, Ortiz plans to be on the road.
“We’ll get the message out,” he said.