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Front Page » Opinion » Where Are Business Leaders As County Tramples The Airport

Where Are Business Leaders As County Tramples The Airport

Written by on July 14, 2005

By Michael Lewis
A few years ago, business leaders united to protect the county’s economic engine by seeking an authority to guide Miami International Airport. But business turned its back and the airport’s strength has been sapped.

In a blatant attack Thursday, Miami-Dade County commissioners thwarted a vital upgrade effort to bring in more than 70 top-level specialty stores – like every other major airport has – in two massive new terminals.

In the last days of interim aviation director Carlos Monzon and with new director JosÈ Abreu still in the wings, commissioners instead moved to hand the $50 million-plus annual enterprises back to insiders whose lobbyists have long run wild at county hall and who offer general-store merchandise in a boutique world.

Commissioners made clear that they, not professionals, will structure contracts that can funnel big money to friends and supporters.

Yet not a whimper from business leaders who had sought a charter change to create an authority that could lessen or eliminate lobbyist influence at the airport.

This isn’t the airport’s only crisis.

At county commission behest, we’re spending $4.8 billion to build massive terminals for a 50%-plus increase in traffic – but traffic has fallen. Now at least one commissioner is suggesting we close perfectly good terminals when the new ones open because we’ll have far too much capacity.

Air traffic hasn’t dried up – it’s just landing across the county line where usage fees and, hence, fares are lower, in part because Broward County isn’t burdened by massive construction debt. Visitors, who provide a key element of this county’s income, head instead to Broward. Some of them will never get to Miami-Dade.

Factor in a national aviation upheaval and post-9/11 security strictures that hammer Miami International because it handles such a large percentage of foreigners, and it’s clear that the airport has enough problems without county hall meddling.

Commissioners feel free to spend airport money because it isn’t fueled by taxes – the airport is self-funding from fees. But the higher those fees must become to support waste, the less competitive Miami International is and the more visitor traffic is lost. The higher fees must soar again in a self-defeating cycle.

The commission has tinkered with airport retail for years. Store operators are well-connected, so commissioners have forced the airport to seek concession proposals over and over until the "right" players win.

So regardless of whether stores offer quality goods or profit the county, airport store proposals come back over and over until favored operators get a large piece of the pie.

Congress has zero contact with contracts. Professionals write specs and execute contracts.

The Florida Legislature has zero contact with contracts. Professionals write specs and execute contracts.

But the county commission has a grip on contracts. If professionals write specs that powerful interests don’t like, the commission decides the specs aren’t right and we have a do-over. We do it over and over until the "right" people win.

The airport professionals bungled the job, says Commissioner Dennis Moss, so we’ll seek proposals again. Other commissioners say we need to look for more small businesses, more local businesses, more minority businesses – translated as more business for the "right" people.

The more variables commissioners toss in – like ethnicity, gender, locality and business size – the more room for lobbyists to "prove" their clients offer the most qualified proposals.

Since a national firm was about to win the contract, commissioners now want to give extra points to local firms – and the firms that run airport stores today that are years behind the rest of the world are very local.

So we’ll do it over and over until those who now control the shops win, as commissioners who have no business putting their fingers into the pie and may not have read the documents know what they’re supposed to criticize, and how. Call it instinct or what you will.

Mayor Carlos Alvarez pledged to wrest procurement from the commission. Unfortunately, he got sidetracked trying to amass power over contracts and lots more for himself.

Before him, Mayor Alex Penelas said an independent authority, not the commission, should oversee the airport. In 2002, when commissioners tried to ram their favorite retail operators past then-aviation director Angela Gittens, he spoke up.

"The issue once again calls into question the proper governance of MIA," he said. "I believe an independent group of Aviation Authority members would be the proper forum for review of our professional airport manager’s recommendations." Unfortunately, Mr. Penelas never pursued his oft-repeated pledge to create an authority.

By forcing the airport to seek proposals instead of hard bids, the commission plays the decisive role. By law, commissioners can’t tinker with straight bids, but with a proposal request, they can tailor specifications to suit friends. That happens over and over with airport retail. This is just the latest bad example of making sure that the "right" people win.

The "right" people argue that stores they run provide the county a higher profit percentage than those that would be run by the "wrong" operators – folks who aren’t politically connected and may not even be local.

They just might be true.

But the primary aim is not – repeat not – to make the largest profit percentage for government from sales at stores but to provide what the flying public expects from a first-class airport.

New operators of quality boutiques might return a lower profit percentage but increase airport sales so much that the county would wind up with more in its pocket. While great, however, that’s still a secondary aim.

The primary aim is to increase Miami International’s use and hence make our economic generator pump move vitality into the community. By distracting commissioners into "what’s in it for me" – either for them personally or, on a higher plain, for county revenues – lobbyists have distracted the commission from the target, county vitality.

The issue is not profits but airport survival.

That’s why commissioners should not handle proposal specifications or oversee the airport.

Commissioners argue that voters expect them to do these things – but this community would cheer, and be better off, if commissioners did neither.

Commissioners also argue that aviation staff members, too, might rig bids. That’s true, but a professional taking a payoff faces jail, while a commissioner whose campaign funds grow at contract time has broken no law – just faith with the public.

Leaders of the Miami Business Forum let efforts for an aviation authority slide, saying they’d be content with procurement reform that would keep the commission’s hands out of contracts like the one it took over Thursday.

The forum got no procurement reform. It got no aviation authority. It watched as the county dumped its competent aviation director. It got precisely what it said it didn’t want.

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