Alvarez notes challenges and successes in turbulent period
By Lou Ortiz
Fed up with recent criticism of his administration, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez shot back on a number of issues, saying he hoped to "set the record straight."
Fault-finding in the media has ranged from the county's financing of a Florida Marlins stadium to reports of waste and mismanagement in county government.
A recent poll conducted at the behest of Commissioner Javier D. Souto by Florida International University found that 60.9% of residents in the western part of the county oppose the stadium. And 41% of those surveyed disapproved of the way the mayor was doing his job.
Besides the criticism, the former Miami-Dade police director could face a challenge to his reelection hopes in November from Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a West Miami attorney.
"You can look at any organization and point to things that are bad," the mayor said in an interview. "But this last year we have done a lot of good things in Dade County."
Mr. Alvarez said building a stadium and keeping a Major League Baseball franchise here is a good way to use the Tourist Development Tax and the Professional Sports Franchise Facilities Tax, which come from tourist dollars.
The county is contributing $347 million toward the $525 million stadium. Miami-Dade's financing also includes $50 million from the Building Better Communities General Obligation Bond program, a measure voters passed in 2004.
"If I was building a baseball stadium for a rich guy, it would never be built," he said.
"We're not proposing a stadium instead of doing something else," the mayor said. "This is important to Miami-Dade County. Our residents are not subsidizing a rich guy."
Mr. Alvarez said he spent two days in Washington last week lobbying for federal funding to complete the Miami River dredging project and to help finance a new 50-foot deep channel for the Port of Miami.
More than $10 million is needed to complete the final phase of the $86 million Miami River dredging, which began in September 2004 and resumed last month. It is being administered by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The project is expected to generate $100 million in business from vessels using the river over the next 20 years.
The dredging will deepen the federally navigable channel to 15 feet from the present 9 to 11 feet, making it possible for fully loaded vessels to use the river at low and high tides.
The informal Miami River port, with 26 private international shipping terminals, is one of the largest in the state. The small ships take cargo to and from the shallow-water ports of the Caribbean. The river was last dredged in the 1930s.
Mr. Alvarez said the county is willing to provide "gap funding" to complete the project. Also important, he said, is a port tunnel and dredging a new channel there.
The Port of Miami has won congressional approval to dredge the 50-foot channel, which supporters say would help double the yearly 7.8 million tons of cargo the port now handles.
If the 5.5-mile channel is dredged, the port would also be poised to draw more business from shipping firms that use the Panama Canal and become only the third port on the East Coast to accommodate 1,000-foot Super-Panamax-class vessels.
Containerships can carry 4,000 to 15,000 TEUs — 20-foot equivalent containers, a term used by ports to measure capacity. Most containers today are 40 feet.
Super Panamax ships carry upwards of 9,000 TEUs and need deeper channels to load and unload their cargoes.
"We're losing cargo business to other ports," Mr. Alvarez said, adding that the planned $914 million port tunnel is "also a top priority."
In 2006, the port handled 8,654,371 tons of cargo, down 8.6% from 2005. Last year tonnage was down 9.5% from 2006, totaling 7,835,132.
The port handled a high of 1,041,483 containers in 2003, before dipping by 3.1% in 2004, and recovering slightly by 4.5% in 2005. But the numbers plummeted 7.4% in 2006, totaling 976,514, and again last year by 9.4% to 884,945.
The planned port tunnel is to connect seaport vehicular traffic between Watson Island and the port.
The state is paying $457 million toward construction, with the county contributing $402 million and the City of Miami $50 million. The project is to take about four years.
"It's an investment in our future," the mayor said of the tunnel. "We need to do something about easing traffic congestion" to and from the port.
The mayor also cited other county accomplishments:
Emergency response times are improving. With 12 new fire stations in the county, a fire-rescue truck is on the scene in an average eight minutes.
The 3-1-1 Answer Center, which did not exist three years ago, has received more than 6 million calls for information or service.
The library system has added 15 libraries since 2001 and is the only system in the US that's growing.
"We've picked up the bill when the state has fallen short," the mayor said. "Over the past six years, the state has reduced funding and/or shifted costs of over $300 million to the county, including $233 million for Medicaid, $10 million for juvenile detention and $6 million for child development and school readiness services."
Despite all of county's financial responsibilities, Mr. Alvarez said Miami-Dade's emergency reserve fund will total $70 million.
"I thought those things needed to be said," the mayor said. "I think it was necessary to make sure we set the record straight.
"Pundits are quick to use words like waste and greed to describe local government," he said. These words play on people's emotions. They conjure up images of elected officials gleefully sitting around a table divvying up the spoils when revenues are up, or government workers recklessly throwing money around.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," the mayor said.