Tuesday, May 7, 2013
A Message from Garcia
A die-hard dialoguero pushes for more people-to-people contact -- in the U.S. House of Representatives
By Kirk Nielsen
I recently snagged South Florida’s first Cuban Democrat in Congress, Joe Garcia, by cellphone as he drove to the Keys to meet with constituents of his district. Ten years ago this spring, when I often had Garcia on the line, the conversation inevitably centered on his notion that political enemies on opposite sides of the Florida Straits should start having precisely that: a conversation. Back then he was executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and pushing a new policy favoring dialogue with Cuban officials (except Fidel and Raul Castro). The idea was that talking could be a first step towards reconciling differences, making concessions, maybe even lifting U.S. trade restrictions. But hardliners in Miami and Havana condemned Garcia. They had vested interests in not talking.
Now as a representative serving Florida’s 26th U.S. House District, Garcia is again promoting the idea of bridging a political divide, this time the one in the Capitol building known as The Aisle. One of his first moves after taking his seat was to join a group of nine other freshmen Democrats and 10 freshman Republicans calling themselves United Solutions. Sharing “a willingness to compromise,” they’re “putting aside partisan differences to do what is right for the American people” concerning the nation’s fiscal crisis, he said in a floor speech in February. “It seems like when we do gather here in this chamber, rather than finding common sense solutions to our problems, we engage in ideological debates, taking votes that are designed for political posturing, that lead us nowhere.”
South Florida’s first Cuban Democrat in Congress is also the first Hispanic Democrat elected to the House from anywhere in the Sunshine State. That fact, owing in part to the South Americanization of his district, probably explains why he was far more eager to speak about “comprehensive immigration reform” than anything else, even Cuba policy, as he drove southward along the Overseas Highway. He thinks the $18 billion federal agencies spend annually on “border protection” is excessive and has diminishing returns. He scoffed at the use of military drones to patrol the border with Mexico. (We spoke before Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky’s 13-hour filibuster to, in Rand’s words, “sound the alarm [that] “no American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime.”) Garcia is also concerned about the 49,000 foreign travelers who miss connections each year at Miami International Airport because of slow processing by the understaffed immigration and customs system there. “We need a border that works,” Garcia says.
Not surprisingly, Garcia’s first bill as a member of Congress was immigration-related. The Venezuelan Liberty Act would grant amnesty to Venezuelans who relocated to the U.S. after Hugo Chavez became president in February 1999 but who lack permanent legal status. Garcia told me he also plans to introduce legislation that would aim to ensure that hundreds of Haitians, Hondurans and Salvadorans who’ve received temporary visas while seeking political amnesty aren’t left out of reforms. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, he’s in a good position to do so.
Garcia may have a tougher time affecting Cuba policy since he’s not on the foreign relations or appropriations committees. Still, he couldn’t help but offer more progressive notions that are certain to rile any hardliners left in his district. He still supports the U.S. ban on tourist travel to the socialist island but believes President Obama should expand the number of licenses Americans receive for educational, religious, and cultural exchanges there. He thinks Congress should authorize micro-loans for entrepreneurs on the island and scholarships for young Cubans to study at U.S. universities, even though he acknowledges that the current regime in Havana would probably shoot down those overtures as they did CANF’s 2003 pro-dialogue message. “More civil society is better than less. More family contact is better than less,” he says.
“I’m not going to obsess about Cuba,” he added, “but one of the problems is you need someone willing to engage in change on the other side.”
That goes for other side of The Aisle, too. Let’s hope Garcia and his bipartisan colleagues in United Solutions have a lot more success at dialogue than did CANF.
For the Birds
A push by home builders to reclassify the endangered wood story serves only to highlight southern Florida's wetlands crisisBy Kirk Nielsen
Southeastern Florida has been in hospitable lately not only for Republican presidential candidates but also for another endangered species: the wood stork. Both types of rare birds have suffered—in different ways—from a tendency to prioritize certain commercial interests while devaluing environmental protection.
But even FDR is to blame. In the 1930s, when 70 percent of wood storks resided south of Lake Okeechobee, an army of federal bulldozers started carving the Everglades region into a maze of huge drainage canals. Some 20,000 breeding pairs of wood storks waded around South Florida then, including parts of the eastern Everglades now known as Kendall, Doral, Miami Lakes, Pembroke Pines, and Weston. By the late 1960s, when wetlands waters funneled into the last major canal project, fewer than 8,500 breeding pairs graced the River of Grass. In 1984, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service counted about 5,600 breeding pairs and added the wood stork to the endangered species list. By the late 1980s only about 500 breeding pairs were left in South Florida, owing to continued wetlands destruction.
Thanks to government-promoted wetlands restoration efforts in the 1990s and 2000s, the wood stork population has made a comeback—except in South Florida, their historical breeding zone. Because of wetlands destruction in our neck of the woods, wood storks have fled up the Atlantic Coast as far as North Carolina and along the Gulf as far west as Mississippi, doubling their range, biologists have found.
There are now more wood storks in Georgia and South Carolina—about 4,200—than in South Florida. The sub-Okeechobee tally is about 3,000, not significantly greater than the 2,858 which biologists counted in 1983, just before home builders and other wetlands-based commercial enterprises drove the wood stork to endangered status.
Oddly, the release of the good news (to the extent that relocation rather than depletion is good) was prompted by a petition sent to Fish & Wildlife by commercial groups who don’t have a wood stork’s best interests at heart. One is the Florida Home Builders Association, whose vaguely worded mission statement describes as its purpose “to create the best possible economic and regulatory environment for our members to succeed.” The manifesto is devoid of language that values an environment in which wood storks can prosper (or any animals of the Florida wetlands, save perhaps the Burmese python).
Allied with the builders is the oxymoronically named Pacific Legal Foundation, a bellicose outfit based in Sacramento whose motto is “Rescuing Liberty from Coast to Coast.” In this case, foundation lawyers want to remove the wood stork from endangered status so that homebuilders are at liberty to build more houses in wetlands. “Environmental regulations must have credibility,” a PLF statement asserts. “No legitimate purpose is served by calling a species ‘endangered’ when it isn’t.”
Ironically, the anti-governmental petition has served little purpose than to force the federal government to spend funds to handle the petition. In 2007, long before the petition was filed, Fish & Wildlife biologists determined that research supported reclassifying the wood stork’s listing to “threatened.” Because of budget constraints the agency refrained from official action, which costs taxpayer dollars and taxes scarce Fish & Wildlife resources. Instead, the agency focused on other beleaguered species needing new protections.
Agency spokesman Chuck Underwood assured me that the redesignation will have no impact on real estate, mining, or other projects that jeopardize wetlands, despite perceptions to the contrary by home builders and their legal eagles. “The reality is that reclassification is a biological classification in the context of extinction,” he explains. Noah Greenwald, a biologist at the environmental group, Center for Biological Diversity, says the change to threatened is “warranted.” “Although it doesn’t reduce habitat protections, I’m sure that the PLF will claim to its paying clients that it does,” he added.
Had South Florida not remained home to one fourth of the total wood stork population across the southeastern U.S., federal biologists wouldn’t have recommended the revision to “threatened,” Underwood noted. Which means that while South Florida may be less critical for the success of GOP presidential candidates, we are ever more so for wood stork designation.
So how can average South Floridians help keep wood storks from fading again into endangered status? “Local communities can help,” says Underwood, “by continuing their support of local, regional and state wetland conservation and restoration efforts.”
Thursday, December 20, 2012
The Immigrant's Tale
The Zola-inspired novel of the season seems equal parts probe of Homo Miamians and candy-colored word-map of Tom Wolfe’s gifted mind
By Kirk Nielsen
This fall, while nervously awaiting a review copy of Tom Wolfe’s new 704-page novel, Back to Blood, I guzzled up the documentary, "How Tom Wolfe Got Back to Blood" and was stirred by the New Journalist-cum-Great American Novelist’s dedication to field reporting. It was paramount for not getting things “wrong technically,” he explained. “I don’t want readers in Miami to go, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding?’”
With deadline looming, I noticed my November issue of Vanity Fair contained part of a Back to Blood chapter titled “The Super Bowl of the Art World.” It opens with a crowd waiting to enter a VIP preview of Art Basel. “Two hundred or so restless souls, most of them middle-aged men, eleven of whom had been pointed out to Magdalena as billionaires — billionaires — were squirming like maggots over the prospect of what lay on the other side of an inch-thick glass wall just inside a small portal, Entrance D of the Miami Convention Center....”
Oh my God. Are you kidding? Tom Wolfe believes Art Basel-goers are maggots?
But no. Wolfe is merely the psychedelic messenger. Magdalena, a 24-year-old Cuban-American nurse from Hialeah, with “perfect lissome legs and thighs and hips” and a huge student loan debt, is the one who thinks so. As a little girl she’d “come upon a little dead dog, a mutt, on a sidewalk in Hialeah” and seen a swarm of “deathly pale worms” in a cut in its haunch. The sight of the Art Basel VIPs triggers the memory. She detests these rich “americanos” as much as she seeks their status.
And so goes Magdalena, who’s never heard of Chagall, Fisher Island, or cachet, into the VIP preview with her boss, Dr. Norman Lewis, a hypomanic Anglo psychiatrist in his 40s specializing in porn addiction treatment. Her status-quest also lands her in bed with Sergei Korolyov, a “gorgeous!” Russian oligarch who’s convinced the Miami Art Museum to become the Korolyov Museum of Art, in exchange for a collection of Kandinskys and Maleviches, which turn out to be fakes.
Meanwhile, she dumps her Hialeah boyfriend, Nestor Camacho, a 25-year-old muscle-bound marine patrol cop (who hardly speaks Spanish even though his parents migrated from Cuba on a raft). Camacho’s fellow exiles, even his abuelos, have condemned him for climbing the mast of a schooner full of partying “americanos” and arresting a terrified Cuban refugee perched on the crow’s nest. He’s reviled again after a raid on an Overtown crack house during which he spews bigoted vitriol—all recorded by someone’s iPhone and uploaded on YouTube. Stripped of his badge, he tries to regain his status by helping an “americano” Miami Herald reporter bust the Russian who created the bogus paintings.
Alas our reporter-novelist commits some technical inaccuracies that deserve if not an “Oh my God” then at least an “Oh dear” or two. To wit: Camacho fears state troopers might stop him for driving while using a cellphone (not illegal in Florida); Magdalena’s Drexel Avenue apartment is south of 5th Street (the real Drexel ends at 12th Street); a senior residence in “Hallandale” is halfway to the Everglades (the real town, Hallandale Beach, abuts the ocean); and more.
Lubricating these preposterous plot lines and barely believable characters are some Miami truths, though, such as: the quintessential man must 1) avoid at all costs being taken for a “pussy” and 2) hit on attractive young women at every opportunity. Wolfe’s hypomanic yet verisimilar descriptions of almost everything rarely go by without realistic glances at cleavage and glimpses of thighs wrapped by mini-skirts or very short shorts.
In the end, BTB is less a novel revealing the madness of a city embroiled in ethnic-based rivalries than a comedy applying Wolfe’s theories on status systems to Miami’s sexy backdrop. Mid-denouement, the Herald’s goofily corrupt editor-in chief, Edward Topping, worries about the integrity of an exposé the paper has published revealing Igor the forger and casting a shadow on philanthropist Korolyov. “Have we done what scientists call hopey-dopey research, in which the hope for a particular outcome skews the actual findings?” Topping wonders.
In other words, Wolfe is signaling his epistemological limits. He can’t help but skew his findings. It’s a farce after all, which means he has to be kidding.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Life and Casualty
Ask not what your public hospitals can do for you but whether you have enough hospital days left for a life-saving procedure
By Kirk Nielsen
Your name is not Jim Kuhn but if it were you’d have died this past August, after doctors and hospital administrators failed to provide you with a heart pump, because your catastrophic coverage had expired.
We like to take comfort that America has “the best health care system in the world,” and it does have astonishing ways, like heart pumps and dialysis, to keep us alive. It also has astounding ways to kill us. In 2009, researchers from Harvard University and the Cambridge Health Alliance determined that 45,000 Americans die each year because they lack health insurance. That’s more than twice the number of American troops killed during the deadliest year (1968) of the Vietnam War. “The United States stands alone among industrialized nations in not providing health coverage to all of its citizens,” the researchers wrote.
The kind of heart pump the 52-year-old Kuhn needed, according to Dr. Steven Borzak, his cardiologist at JFK Medical Center in West Palm Beach, is an amazing battery-powered gadget called a Left Ventricular Assist Device. The pump part is implanted in one’s chest and wired to a compact control unit worn like a shoulder holster.
As Miami Herald reporter John Dorschner wrote in the article that broke Kuhn’s tragic story, LVADs “were made famous when former vice president Dick Cheney received one as a temporary device before he received a heart transplant.” But cardiologists are increasingly prescribing the pumps in lieu of transplants. Dorschner quoted Duke University physician Dr. Joseph Rogers as saying “80-to-90 percent of patients with advanced heart failure die within a year without LVADs.” With them, however, patients show a 63-to-75 percent chance of surviving at least two more years, Rogers added.
The costs are daunting, of course. An LVAD sells for about $100,000. But that wasn’t the obstacle in Kuhn’s case, according to his doctor. LVAD manufacturer Thoratec agreed to donate one. The problem was that no one donated hospital days to Kuhn, a former truck driver.
JFK Medical Center doesn’t do transplants, and when Borzak sought transplant specialists at the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital and at Miami-Dade’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, administrators at the two hospitals refused to admit Kuhn. The rationale: He’d used up his Medicare allotment of no more than five straight months in the hospital and had no private health care insurance. Florida’s hospital limit for Medicaid, for which he also qualified, is 45 days. “Borzak, the cardiologist, said no hospital wanted to implant the LVAD in an uninsured man,” Dorschner reported. In sum, Jackson and Sands left a very sick man to die over concerns about money.
Like heart surgeries, LVAD installations are exorbitant. “The aggregate costs of such treatments can potentially become high enough to have adverse effects in other areas of social welfare,” bioengineer Kenneth Foster and three colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania concluded in a 2004 analysis. But they also wrote: “It is clearly unacceptable to deny patients a lifesaving treatment (such as dialysis or LVAD).”
The price of extending a life with an LVAD remains high, but is decreasing. A Duke cardiology study published this year estimates the average five-year cost for LVAD treatment to be $360,000. “If I were dying from heart failure I would certainly want to have an LVAD,” Foster told me recently.
Two days after Kuhn died Jackson Health Systems projected a $35 million surplus for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, after being deep in the red in recent years.
And with the help of bond money, “Jackson leaders hope to plow $63 million into capital improvements,” the Miami Herald article noted.
A small fraction of that $98 million—or even tinier fractions of the billion dollars in fraudulent Medicare payments that made their way to South Florida in recent years, or the billion dollars sunk into a baseball stadium—would have covered LVAD costs for Kuhn and many others.
JHS’s new budget also includes $1.5 million in marketing and advertising. What a shame. Because no commercial could ever send a more powerful message than a news story about surgeons defiantly giving Jim Kuhn a heart pump regardless of his insurance coverage.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Bright Lights, Bad City
At Miami’s city hall, massive flashing billboards replace video slot machines as the boldest new idea for municipal finance.
By Kirk Nielsen
For a long time I wondered what the Miami Parking Authority could possibly have to do with video slot machines. I now know, after a chat with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado at a recent conceptual art show in the Design District. Part of our conversation went more or less like this:
Me: So, I’ve been wondering. What do video slot machines have to do with the Miami Parking Authority? (I was referring to a phone call the mayor made in October 2010 to then-city manager Carlos Migoya. Regalado wanted him to get police chief Miguel Exposito to delay raiding cafeterias, bars, and other places featuring video slot machines until after a vote on the future of the parking authority. Several days earlier, Regalado had won commission approval of an ordinance allowing city officials to license video slot machines and charge their owners operating fees, even though the devices were illegal under state law.)
Mayor Regalado: Well, we had a referendum coming up, and I knew that if there were raids people would start saying, “Oh, Miami is corrupt,” and then the referendum wouldn’t pass. (The referendum sought to turn the independent parking authority into a city department. A majority of voters rejected the item.)
In other words, afraid that police raids on video slot machines would sully his political image, the mayor sullied his image by meddling with police raids for political purposes. Extraordinary. And a still-defining moment of his mayorship.
Of course, all across America local elected officials have wracked their brains to find creative new revenue streams for nearly bankrupt municipal governments. Miami’s are just more insane, perhaps. Yet Mayor Regalado will forcefully tell you his motives for both legalizing video slots and usurping the parking authority were purely fiscal, not nuts or even nefarious. “I have not received one call from the FBI or the State Attorney’s Office,” he offered, apparently anticipating a question concerning news reports linking the local video slots industry to “organized crime.”
This year, staring at a deficit of at least $30 million, Regalado and commissioners want to legalize another kind of money machine that is outlawed but nonetheless flourishing in the Magic City: illuminated, flashing billboards known as LEDs. They’re illegal under a Miami-Dade county law that trumps more local sign ordinances, though several Clear Channel LEDs now illegally adorn expressways in Miami.
In mid-April, commissioners gave preliminary approval for LED billboards on the Miami Children’s Museum, the James L. Knight Center, and the historic Olympia Theater building.
Although no civic action arose to thwart the video slots ordinance, some is mounting to prevent flashing billboard proliferation, especially in areas where the signs would shine all night into the bedroom windows of affluent condo dwellers and homeowners. A group named Scenic Miami is leading the anti-LED charge.
In late April I visited Miami City Hall down on Dinner Key one morning that the commissioners discussed yet another billboard legalization proposal. Art Noriega, the parking authority’s CEO, told me his agency had sought permission to place ads only on parking meters. But by the time city manager Johnny Martinez and city attorney Julie Bru delivered it, the initiative called for legalizing billboards on virtually any city-owned “fixture.” The commission decided to revisit a less sweeping version in the future, which did little to comfort LED-billboard opponents.
Seeking illumination of a different sort, that same day I attended the Downtown Bay Forum, where the topic was whether politics and ethics could coexist. Joe Centorino, executive director of the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission, told about 30 lunchers, “We have an election system that ought to work.” Elected officials who commit crimes must be prosecuted and removed from office, he assured, but cautioned that it’s “a dangerous thing” for people to rely on law enforcement to control elected officials. “A healthy democracy needs to have a healthy electoral process, and that ultimately is really the only way to ensure you get ethics in government,” he said.
Former county commissioner Katy Sorenson, who runs a nonprofit named the Good Government Initiative, sighed loudly and added that “all over the planet” there are “some people who will get away with whatever they can get away with,” while others “want to have a government that has integrity.” I wondered to myself, in light of the apparent drift at Dinner Key, if this latter type are outnumbered when it comes to controlling officials at Miami City Hall.
On May 24 the commissioners voted 4 to 1 to give final approval for flashing commercial signage on the children’s museum, the Olympia Theater, and the James L. Knight Center.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Turbine or not Turbine
Twenty years since Denmark became the king of wind power, Florida’s clean energy story remains a tale of woe
by Kirk Nielsen
I spent much of August quite literally chilling in Denmark and returned to muggy Miami with a partial solution for ending the Sunshine State’s addiction to oil, coal, and plutonium. Prince Hamlet’s former realm, like much of Florida, is a flat, low-lying land with vast expanses of drained wetlands next to the Atlantic Ocean.
But parallels with Florida pretty much stop there. Among the enormous dissimilarities are the clusters of giant white, sleekly-designed wind turbines on Danish landscapes. One day while feeling a 60-degree breeze on Denmark’s western-most island, Jutland, I looked east over the marshes and pastures and saw a line of six windmills in the distance. Beyond them, through the haze, I detected two more rows probably 20 and 30 miles off. To the south, there were 19 windmills along the horizon. Another day, back in Denmark’s eastern-most island, Sealand, I counted a line of 27 slowly swirling above the sea just off the entrance to Copenhagen’s huge shipping channel.
Meanwhile, my (sweltering) fellow Floridians gazing out from Miami Beach or any other point along Florida’s breezy Atlantic coast saw no wind turbines. Nor would they have seen any to the west, even had they driven all the way to the Gulf.
Why no wind power in Florida, two decades after Denmark pioneered the world’s first wind farms, and one since George W. Bush affirmed our “addiction to oil?” One culprit: an outdated wind-velocity map published by the Department of Energy in 1987, which long held that Florida’s wind speeds were “marginal” for electrical generation purposes. Thanks to better computers and measuring devices, DOE recently released a new, higher resolution map based on measurements that are more nuanced and precise.
The map also reflects the potential of much taller turbine towers. “Generally, the higher you go, the better the wind speeds,” explains Simon Mahan, renewable energy manager for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an advocacy group. “Wind turbine hub height has grown to over 80 meters, a 40-percent increase over the models installed in the late ‘90s.”
So, now DOE tells us that Florida’s on-shore wind speeds are much higher than previously believed—they average around 14 miles per hour. That isn’t radically lower than Iowa’s average of 19 miles per hour. Had we looked into it ourselves, we might have known sooner and now ranked among the nation’s leaders in wind energy, which provides Iowans one-fifth of their state’s electrical needs, rather than one of the country’s renewable energy laggards.
In addition, we might have realized that for several years now technological advances have made it viable to harness low-velocity winds. “New highly efficient large-scale turbines are commercially available that can begin to generate electricity in wind speeds as low as 6.7 miles per hour,” Mahan says. “Longer and lighter turbine blades help improve the efficiency of these new turbines.” The latter have 145 percent more capacity, he adds, meaning fewer are needed than before to generate the same amount electricity.
Moreover, the Atlantic Ocean should have given us an advantage over those resourceful midwesterners. “Florida likely has better wind resources offshore,” Mahan tells me. But the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory hasn’t even conducted an offshore wind resource assessment for Florida, in part because of our (and our congressional delegation’s) lack of organization, as meteorologists like to say.
So, is it because turbines kill birds that we lag so? No. Researchers have found our feathered friends tend to avoid the new longer, lighter, more slowly-spinning blades. Recent nationwide surveys indicate bird fatality rates range from zero to 39 birds per turbine per year. When built in sensible locations—as opposed to, say, a golden eagle flyway in California’s Altamont Pass—windmills kill far fewer birds than American coal and nuclear plants, tall glass buildings, cars, or cats, according to various scientific studies.
After returning from Denmark, I learned that some breezes of change have been blowing in Florida. Wind Capital Group, a Missouri-based company, is securing leases and permits for dozens of turbines on sugar cane farms southeast of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County. Florida’s only other major wind venture is one Florida Power & Light is considering off the coast of Port St. Lucie. It’s taken four years for FPL just to get permission to start building a 90-meter tower to measure wind speeds in that area.
Overall we remain in some major doldrums when it comes to developing wind power in Florida. Other states, including Georgia and the Carolinas, have Wind Working Groups, federally-sponsored partnerships in which public officials, entrepreneurs, conservationists, and others collaborate on wind projects. We don’t even have one of those. I’m not sure if something’s still rotten in Denmark, but Florida’s renewable energy efforts certainly have been.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Quality of Vice
Friday, April 29, 2011
After the interview, we chatted in the doorway, and to my amazement Bosch started to cry, blubberingly lamenting the deaths of all those people who died in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. This capacity to swing from the vile callousness he displayed several minutes earlier to an outburst of authentic bereavement still perplexes and disturbs me when I think about it.
You can read a little more about this encounter with Orlando Bosch here, in this link to an old Miami New Times article "Terrorists, But Our Terrorists."
Saturday, April 2, 2011
The Codina Conundrum
What the Spence-Jones bribery case taught us about the real estate business and shamelessness
Monday, January 3, 2011
By Kirk Nielsen
With a new Republican-led House of Representatives in Washington, and a voter mandate to cut spending, we’re all supposed to prepare for smaller, more accountable government. Of course, that’s going to prompt all kinds of crises, especially at the municipal level. Good thing we here in Greater Miami actually got a head start on some of them in 2010. The wake-up call came in February at Jackson Health Systems, Miami-Dade County’s tax-supported hospital for the tired and huddled masses. There was an amazing discovery: a $244.6 million deficit for fiscal year 2009. No one is quite sure how that happened. But eleven months later, we can all take heart. The new diagnosis? The estimated loss for fiscal year 2010 is only $88 million. That’s still pretty sick, but knowing is the first step to healing. Prognosis for 2011: longer, more huddled lines at JHS, sicker people on the Greater Miami streets.
With summer came the realization that we’ve had a new industry in our midst for years and didn’t even know it. Apparently it is also one of the area’s most lucrative, behind real estate, tourism, and drug trafficking. Its name: Medicare fraud. Month after month, in the spirit of free market competition, our best Medicare defrauders continued to outdo each other, according to the local U.S. attorney’s office. By year’s end American Therapeutic Corp. emerged as the industry leader, with $84 million in bogus Medicare earnings and $100 million more in the pipeline at the time of their arrests. Overall, allegations of total fraudulent Medicare billings in South Florida approached $2 billion, as far as federal prosecutors know. Prognosis: continued downturn for Medicare fraudsters. Less waste at Medicare.
Anti-tax fever was so high that even the Florida Marlins felt it in 2010. Construction proceeded on the team’s new “$645 million” retractable roof baseball stadium and taxpayers are still paying for most of it ($515 million). But a national press leak of Marlins financial records showed the team ended the 2008-09 season with a $49 million profit. At press time county commissioners were exploring ways to make the team pay for a bigger portion of its stadium. Prognosis: prolonged stadium finance crisis, as redistribution of wealth from county taxpayers to baseball team continues.
The revelation of Marlins earnings was also to cast a long shadow on a new budget proposed by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who backed the stadium deal, would cut hundreds of county jobs, while raising property taxes 12 percent and employee salaries by $132 million. That tax hike sent Republican automobile dealer Norman Braman on a drive to recall not more Toyotas but Alvarez (who’s also a Republican). Prognosis: With anti-tax fever at an all-time high in Miami-Dade and seemingly everywhere in the nation, Braman has a reasonable chance of seeing voters eject Alvarez in 2011.
While Alvarez’s political capital depreciated in 2010, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado’s rose. As a city commissioner he’d cast the lone vote against the stadium deal in 2008. In August 2010 he avoided laying off city workers by confronting police and firefighters unions—precisely what Alvarez did not do. Moreover, Regalado (another Republican) and city manager Carlos Migoya pushed through a budget with reduced salaries, pensions and benefits for city employees. Prognosis: a continuing budget deficit will force Regalado and the commission to lay off city workers—or raise taxes.
There was even one sign of hope in 2010 for a more fiscally-responsible Miami-Dade commission, as Jean Monastime ousted County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, who’d held the District 2 seat for 12 years. It was a triple whammy. Besides becoming the first Haitian American on the commission, Monastime knocked out one of the most fiscally-challenged politicians in the county, and did so by spending three times less money as Rolle. Monastime had campaigned to bring “accountability” and “efficiency” to county government. Rolle’s nonprofit, the James E. Scott Community Association, achieved bankruptcy this summer, owing former employees $600,000, Miami-Dade County $1.4 million and Jackson Health Systems $352,000. Prognosis: Those funds, like so many other local taxpayer dollars, are forever wasted.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Open Seat Takeover
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Planet Britto: Has Miami Had Enough?
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Where is a billboard a wallscape, an ugly street a glamorous boulevard, and a bribe a nonprofit contribution? Sí. Miami!
By Kirk Nielsen
Why does it seem as though nobody in Miami’s political establishment knows where the gifting ends and the bribery begins? If only Miami commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones had laughed off Armando Codina’s crazy street renaming idea a few years ago as cheekily as she did her recent bribery indictment. Then she might only be facing grand theft charges for turning $50,000 in county grant money into a donation to herself in 2004.
Now she has a bribery count because instead of cracking up at Codina, the former District 5 commissioner took the upstanding real estate mogul’s street name conceit quite seriously. After all, it was March 2006, the peak of high-rise hysteria. Codina was working with MDM Development Group on Met 2, a 47-story high-rise project in dreary old downtown, just across the river from glamorous Brickell Avenue. Why not just pretend Brickell Avenue extends north over the bridge into the drabness?
To change street names and signs, however, one needs city commission approval. So Codina, a seasoned writer of four and five-figure checks, made some rounds. Spence-Jones asked him to donate $25,000 to a Liberty City nonprofit, Friends of MLK. Then, she’d vote to pretend that Brickell Avenue runs north past Met 2. Codina sent a $12,500 check to the organization; Ricardo Glas, an MDM executive, was to pay the other half. This is Miami democracy at work.
But Miami democracy is weird and unpredictable. They didn’t get their Brickell extension. In a compromise, the commission opted for “Avenue of the Americas.”
Last month, after police booked Spence-Jones on bribery charges for soliciting the $25,000, she called it a donation. “As an elected official, you ask everyone to donate. I ask everybody,” she apprised The Miami Herald. The main question was whether she received a “direct benefit” from the money, and the answer was “no,” she added.
Is the suspended commissioner really that clueless? To ask Codina for a check in the context of any vote is to corrupt the democratic process. And to comply with the request is just as corrupt. Codina told the Herald he thought his donation was to help pay for a gala honoring ex-county commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler. Now that’s laughable.
How is buying influence via a party for a shady ex-commissioner any better than buying it with a check to a sleazy nonprofit? Besides, the damage was already done by Codina and Spence-Jones’ quid pro quo. In the archaic language of Florida’s bribery statute, their “evil example” had offended the public’s “peace and dignity” as they sealed the deal.
State prosecutors also made evil example of the previous occupant of the District 5 seat, Arthur Teele. Among other things, they learned that lobbyist Sandy Walker donated $20,000 to Teele’s American Express card account in 2002. At the time of Teele’s suicide in July 2005, investigators were studying whether that gift was the quid for Teele’s pro vote on a bus bench billboard contract for the Sarmiento company. Walker was the firm’s Miami-registered lobbyist.
One can’t know how much bribery and grand theft saturates Miami democracy. But certainly legal donations to politicians are more widespread and, I dare say, cast a greater evil upon the municipality. Indeed, they are the fuel of Miami’s complex political engine. Examples abound. For instance, I’ll never forget when Pennsylvania-based billboard entrepreneur Barry Rush told me of a $10,000 donation he made after meeting with Mayor Manny Diaz in 2004. Rush was seeking a new ordinance to legalize some illegal wallscape billboards he’d already deployed on downtown high-rises. At the mayor’s request, the gift went to the Neighbors Helping Neighbors PAC to promote a bond issue for $7 billion of public works projects. Rush eventually got his law. Coincidentally, he was among Spence-Jones’s most generous campaign donors, along with dozens of other high-minded billboard purveyors, real estate executives, lawyer-lobbyists, and corporate spendthrifts seeking nothing in return, I’m sure.
Grand theft charges aside, Spence-Jones was emulating her political peers when she solicited her “donation” from Codina. The gifting occurs regularly at fundraisers, and lobbyists and executives routinely find ways around the $500 per person limit. (See for yourself in campaign reports on the city clerk’s website.) But unless a donor confesses, the quids pro quos remain secret.
How to re-enfranchise the non-donating masses? A simple ban on bribery won’t do. Miami Beach forbids campaign contributions by vendors and lobbyists with city business. Such a law could help restore real democracy on the other side of the causeway. But Miamians are a hard case, and need a bolder remedy. How about banning all political donations and instituting public campaign financing? For the peace and dignity of non-donors everywhere.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
From the March 2010 issue of Poder Magazine
Cement Over Miami
In the aggregate, the federal stewards of Everglades restoration are moving quickly to preserve wetland destruction for generations to come
by Kirk Nielsen
You wake up one bright South Florida morning, make some coffee, and head for the balcony of your downtown Miami condo, laptop in hand. You feel the cement floor caress the bottoms of your feet. As you step outside, the balmy air hits your face; you gaze westward. You notice the sunlight glimmering off a beautiful multicolored river of cars on I-95, all in one lane because of a construction project. You know that the Miami River is also down there somewhere, fantastically obscured by an awe-inspiring panoply of bridges and roadway overpasses. Oh, there’s a pretty little patch of water, you say to yourself and smile. You scan the panorama, take in the grid of streets, avenues, parking lots, and marvel at this vast pastel-colored tapestry of cement, concrete and asphalt, as far as the eye can see. Where does all this concrete come from, you wonder. It’s miraculous.
You sit at your balcony breakfast table and take a sip of coffee while the computer boots up to the Herald. Headline: ‘Lake Belt’ mining OK’d in Northwest Miami-Dade. Lakes in the Everglades? You thought it was just a huge river, as in the River of Grass. Being an educated sort, you knew that during the Ice Age humongous glaciers descended into the northern United States and carved out holes that filled with water when the glacier receded. But not this far south. You read on and the news is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved permits allowing rock mining companies to blast and excavate limestone from 10,000 acres of Everglades wetlands over the next 20 years. The “lakes” are the resulting craters, which fill with water because they’re in the middle of North America’s largest wetland. Ah, American ingenuity.
In fact, each year the Lake Belt produces 60 million tons of limestone aggregate, a main ingredient in cement, concrete, and asphalt. That’s almost half of the aggregate the state of Florida consumes in a year. Wow, you think. You look up, take in your 41st floor view again. How many lakes’ worth of limestone went into this skyline?
Of course, God didn’t create the Everglades only to provide human beings with aggregate. He also made them to create jobs. Approximately 7,000 to 14,000 of them, the Miami-Dade Limestone Products Association estimates. That’s probably a little exaggerated, you chuckle, but still, folks in California should be so lucky. They probably wish the Army Corps would approve some permits to clear-cut a couple dozen square miles of trees in the Redwood and Sequoia National Forests right about now. A single giant sequoia tree could probably create at least a hundred jobs. But the Army Corps doesn’t handle deforestation proposals; it tends to specialize in waterways and wetlands projects involving heavy earth-moving machinery. Sorry Northern California.
You look up again, sip some more coffee, and revel in your solitude, because you’re one of about ten residents who’s ever actually lived in your highrise. It’s like your own little cement mountain top. Reading on, you learn that the Sierra Club and other environmental conservation groups recently won an eight-year-long federal court battle aimed at banning rock mining in the Everglades - jobs and aggregate be damned. The fight was over some permits the Army Corps hastily issued to rock miners in 2002. Federal judge William Hoeveler said the Army Corps didn’t consider whether the rock miners had viable alternatives to the Everglades from which to mine rock. So he rescinded the permits. An appeals panel in Atlanta upheld the judge’s decision.
Moreover, Sierra Club argued that toxic chemicals in the rock quarries could seep into the Biscayne Aquifer—the primary source of drinking water for Miami-Dade—because the aquifer flows right underneath the darn “lakes.” In 2005, as the trial continued, chemists detected benzene in the Lake Belt’s H2o (although none in drinking supplies).
But eight days after the appeals court ruling, the Army Corps approved new permits for mining companies in the Lake Belt!
You’re thirsty, so you head inside and grab the Brita filter water pitcher from the fridge. Do these things filter out benzene, you wonder. (They don’t.) Back on the balcony, you open a related article about an Everglades restoration project to put part of the Tamiami Trail on a bridge. After ten years of talk, it’s finally underway. Of course that can only mean more cement - don’t you just love it!