And Now The Good News From The County Managers Office
Written by Michael Lewis on December 13, 2007
By Michael Lewis
Talk about rotten timing.
Miami-Dade Manager George Burgess was all set to tell a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce lunch how well the county is handling $2.9 billion in general obligation bond spending and how he’s almost finished a baseball stadium deal.
His talk had been booked far in advance, long before we reported Nov. 22 that:
•The percentage of bond issue projects that were at least half a year late had more than doubled, from 6% to 13%, in one year.
•The head of the advisory group on the bonding was pleading for expedited efforts.
•In the bond issue referendum, county staff had erroneously included $137 million in mortgage subsidies that were illegal under the bond issue.
•Florida International University’s medical school was in line to get $10 million of bond proceeds, though it wasn’t in the bond program.
Then, the next week, we noted in addition that:
•The formal oversight on bond spending promised to voters had been downgraded to a mere advisory group by Mr. Burgess’ own hand.
•As a result, county commissioners have full sway to spend bond money for projects that aren’t in the program, shuffling dollars more or less as they please.
That brought us to Mr. Burgess’ Dec. 5 noon speech. That morning, we and others had printed that $10 million in bond money had indeed been sidetracked to the medical school. (The next day, after the FIU deed was done, the Miami Herald joined in our Nov. 22 call to keep faith with voters on bond issue spending.)
Then, undercutting Mr. Burgess’ second topic, his deal to spend county funds for a ballpark, was that morning’s news that the Florida Marlins had just traded their two remaining championship stars for names nobody knows to save $20 million in payroll. A public outcry against the Marlins hit the press.
Meanwhile, a Sun-Sentinel columnist noted that morning that the "poor" Marlins who are lined up for a county stadium subsidy pay such low salaries that they are awash in profits, even though they sell minimal tickets to their few remaining fans.
So, what was poor George Burgess to do? He’s stepping up to a microphone in front of the community’s business leadership to tout tainted efforts one day after Commissioner Dorrin Rolle had chided him in public about his bond issue defense, "You can’t sprinkle sugar on manure and then call it candy."
But, since all the bond and baseball manure had appeared in the press, Mr. Burgess decided just how to handle a messy situation. Ignoring the adage that you should never pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel, he began by telling the chamber that it’s the media that are hurting his county projects.
By not supporting his efforts, he said, the media are tearing down the community — the theory no doubt being that if we don’t report myriad problems at county hall, nobody knows about them so they’re just not problems.
Mr. Burgess then cheered that "only" 13% of county bond projects are a half year or more late and that an advisory group to which he, the mayor and the commissioners appoint all the members and which has no authority to change a thing had agreed with every bond spending measure he’d brought before it. That was the good news.
He also said he was near a deal with the Marlins to build them a ballpark. He did not mention whether it would be in Detroit or Boston, which is where the Marlins’ stars will mostly play.
He ended by calling for media applause for his work rather than criticism and said he hoped that would be the case by the time he returned to the chamber.
He did not receive a standing ovation, but nobody threw ripe fruit. And he left the room before the program ended.
Since Mr. Burgess has admonished the media to cheer his efforts rather than uncover the problems, we’ll comply.
First, we print below his letter of defense, received Friday, in which he notes among other things that the bond projects that have not yet been started are not late in construction. We applaud that progress.
Next, we’ll list Mr. Burgess’ other triumphs:
•He has managed to retain his job in the face of a massive January power shift at county hall that effectively turned the person titled manager into an assistant who serves at the mayor’s pleasure.
•Despite frequent county scandals, Mr. Burgess has successfully avoided blame, though most of those involved report directly or indirectly to him. He regularly points to any discovery by anyone of county failures or misdeeds on his watch as another success of government. The Teflon brand comes to mind.
We hail as well all these other notable achievements by Mr. Burgess:
There now, who says we can’t be cheerleaders?