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11 posts from March 29, 2013

March 29, 2013

Latin Builders question firm's Cuba ties

@PatriciaMazzei

Contractor Odebrecht USA has invited construction trade organizations to attend an information session Monday on a massive new project for Miami International Airport called Airport City. But don’t expect to see the Latin Builders Association there.

The LBA will skip the session because a subsidiary of Odebrecht’s Brazilian parent company is renovating the Cuban Port of Mariel. That connection has put the Coral Gables-based Odebrecht USA in political hot water. Several county commissioners have opposed giving the firm any more work.

“We must be steadfast in our resolve for our brothers in Cuba,” LBA President Bernie Navarro wrote in a letter. “We can’t allow Odebrecht to traffic with our suffering. Our position is not negotiable.”

Navarro, however, made sure to call Gilberto Neves, Odebrecht USA’s president, “a class act.” “His actions and respect for this community are not the same as those of his corporate parent,” he wrote.

Navarro’s letter was distributed by Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee in Washington that has vocally complained about Odebrecht’s ties to Cuba. A handful of Miami-Dade cities have approved legislation opposing Airport City.

“I don’t know what’s driving them,” Neves told The Miami Herald’s editorial board last week about the cities’ resolutions. “I hope that the benefits of [the project] outweigh that.”

Obama makes quick stop under Miami's seaport

@PatriciaMazzei

President Barack Obama traveled briefly to — and under — PortMiami on Friday afternoon to push for new ways to secure private dollars for big-ticket projects to renovate highways, bridges, pipes and schools.

Obama toured the port tunnel being built under Biscayne Bay and then praised the project as an example of the local, state and federal government working together, and with private companies, to grow the economy and create construction jobs.

“We still have too many ports that aren’t equipped for today’s world commerce,” the president said. “We’ve still got too many rail lines that are too slow and clogged up. We’ve still got too many roads that are in disrepair, too many bridges that aren’t safe.”

Obama spoke to port workers, business people and politicians gathered at a cargo shipping area lined with containers. He began by noting the spring weather and addressing what he called a “sticky subject” — basketball.

“I know you guys aren’t happy with my Chicago Bulls,” he said, as the crowd booed. “But I just want you to know the Heat are going to be just fine.”

“The Hurricanes, they had a great season,” he added. “Tonight you’ve got Florida and Florida Gulf Coast going at it ... So, let’s face it, Florida is the center of basketball right now.”

Then he turned to the matter at hand: infrastructure.

To promote more private investment in public projects, Obama proposed raising the caps on certain state and local bonds to lower project financing costs and making the bonds available to more types of projects; exempting foreign pension funds from taxes when they want to invest in U.S. infrastructure, as is already done for American pension funds, and spending an additional $4 billion for two programs that have provided loans and grants to projects.

More here.

Sachs maintains Broward residency by renting condo from consultant

Sen. Maria Sachs, a Democrat whose district was reconfigured because of redistricting to stretch into Broward County, maintains a residence in Fort Lauderdale by renting a condo from a prominent political consultant and gaming lobbyist. 

Sachs, vice chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, was re-elected to the Senate in November after a bitter election battle against former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. She told the Herald/Times she signed a lease to rent the condo on NE 9th St. in Fort Lauderdale from her long-time friend Judy Stern, but did not know she represented gambling clients. 

Stern is not registered to lobby in Tallahassee but represents Mardi Gras Casinos and Delaware North, a food service and gaming machine company, in Broward County.

 “Judy Stern and I go back many many years -- before I started in the legislature. We’re girlfriends,’’ Sachs said. “I didn’t know that those were her clients I think because she never lobbied me.’’

Continue reading "Sachs maintains Broward residency by renting condo from consultant" »

Citizens Insurance does $250 million risk transfer

As part of an ongoing effort to hedge against a massive hurricane disaster, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has completed a $250 million risk transfer in the capital markets.

The so-called catastrophe bond, which cost Citizens millions of dollars, could come in handy if the state gets slammed with a major storm between now and 2016. It follows a $750 million deal last year with the same company, Everglades Re.

Citizens said it was able to save more money on this year’s deal.

“This action continues Citizens’ goal of transferring risk to the private sector by working closely with nontraditional capital markets, and further protecting our policyholders and all taxpayers in Florida,” said Citizens board chairman Carlos Lacasa said. “Citizens has emerged as an international leader in risk transference and our achievements are being recognized by financial markets around the world.”

If Florida does not get hit with a big hurricane in the next three years, the bond investors will pocket the money, leaving Citizens with a smaller surplus.

The company is planning to announce additional risk-transfer measures in the coming days, including a multi-million purchase of private reinsurance.

Last year, a deal to buy reinsurance led to controversy at Citizens, because top officials traveled the globe to meet with insurers—staying in luxury hotels and dining on gourmet meals.

The company is hoping to bounce back from a year of tough publicity, and recently announced that it had reduced its risk of “hurricane taxes” by 42 percent. Some of that risk reduction ahs occured through higher rates on homeowners. Under a bill moving through the Legislature, Citizens would continue to raise rates--doing so faster than it has recently.        

Latvala predicts 'furor' if residents' email addresses are public

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was all by himself and he couldn't believe it.

In a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting Thursday, Latvala was the lone voice objecting to a bill to allow property appraisers to send homeowners tax notices and other official documents by email instead of through the postal service.

The bill (SB 7130) was presented by Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, and Latvala was shocked that it did not also include a public records exemption to keep homeowners' email addresses confidential. Latvala said if the email addresses are public, private for-profit vendors can obtain them under the state public records law, invade their privacy and solicit them for goods and services of all kinds.

"We're going to have a lot of our constituents that are going to get very angry and will want to know how people got their email addresses," Latvala warned his colleagues. "I've had the experience. I'm in the business. I know the furor that comes from that," said Latvala, a printer and campaign consultant who deals with supervisors of elections regarding voters' requests for absentee ballots.

"This is a big deal with the privacy of citizens," said Latvala, recalling the public outrage several years ago when it was discovered that motorists' personal driving records were being sold commercially to profit-making companies.

Hukill said that if public access to individuals' email addresses is a problem with her bill, it's also an issue with similar bills.

Latvala was the only senator from either party who voted against the bill. His stand likely will draw the attention of the First Amendment Foundation, which opposes a similar public records exemption for voters who request sample ballots by email.

-- Steve Bousquet

Legislature urges state worker raises; first time in 6 years

The Florida Senate and House rolled out their respective budget proposals on Friday. Both budgets are slightly bigger than Gov. Rick Scott's spending plan, and both differ from Scott's in one respect: Lawmakers want to give across the board pay raises to all state workers, while Scott favors bonuses to workers.

The House offers every state worker a $1,400 pay raise, which amounts to about 3.3 percent. The Senate budget includes a 3 percent across the board pay boost for all state workers, who have gone for six straight years with no increase in salary.

On teacher salaries -- Scott's top priority -- the House released a $74.4 billion budget on Friday that includes $676 million for pay raises for teachers, with half of the increase amount tied to merit-based teacher performance. The Senate matched Scott's proposal for $480 million in teacher pay raises but also stipulated that it be tied to performance. Florida ranks 45th among the 50 states in teacher pay.

The House's $200 million plan for construction and renovation at Florida universities is much more robust that Scott's $70 million proposal. The House budget includes a 6 percent increase in college and university tuition, and Scott has repeatedly said he opposes any more tuition increases.

"If you look at our budget and say, who is the big winner? The big winner is education," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

The Senate wants to set aside $2.9 billion in reserves, while the House would set aside $1.2 billion. Both chambers' budgets include half a billion dollars to shore up the unfunded liability in the state pension fund. Both budgets fall far short of the $279 million Scott requested for economic development incentivies to attract new jobs to Florida.

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, criticized the House GOP leadership for not including an expansion of Medicaid in its budget. Said Thurston said it was "highly doubtful" that House Democrats would vote for a state budget "that fails to adequately address Florida's health care needs."

Despite the current differences in all three spending plans, leaders will work to make compromises as the nine-week session enters its second half next week. "It's a nine-inning session, and we're in the fourth inning," Weatherford said.

-- Steve Bousquet

Florida unemployment drops, Scott releases new job-creation chart on Easter egg

Via Doug Hanks

 Job growth continues in South Florida, despite thinned-out payrolls in local government that now serve as the main anchor to a full recovery in hiring for the region.

The February employment report generally brought good news statewide, as a recovery that once seemed at risk of stalling has appeared to regain steam. Broward and Miami-Dade added about 27,000 positions to payrolls, though Miami-Dade is down 5,400 jobs at the local-government level.

But there were two signs of concern in Miami-Dade’s report. The first: unemployment is on the rise again, leaping from 9.3 percent in January to 9.7 percent in February, the highest in 12 months. The numbers are seasonally adjusted, and considered a reliable barometer of month-to-month changes in hiring.

Part of the reason behind the spike looks encouraging: Miami-Dade has about 7,000 more job seekers in February than it did in January. That’s generally a positive trend, since it shows optimism toward hiring conditions. But the same survey of households found only a tiny uptick in people describing themselves as employed: up less than 1,000 in Miami-Dade.

Statewide, unemployment inched down to 7.7 percent from a revised 7.9 percent in January. Both employment and the labor force grew in Florida. Broward receives only raw unemployment numbers, and its jobless rate went from 6.7 percent to 6.2 percent. That’s the lowest since October 2008.

Read more here

 Gov. Rick Scott took time Friday to tout the state's falling unemployment rate, in a new "It's Working" video. 

"2013 has been a great year for Florida families," he said. 

See the video below:

 


Retiring MIA director recalls 'helter skelter' of taking over airport

@PatriciaMazzei

It was José Abreu’s last groundbreaking ceremony, and the owner of a company building a new hangar at Opa-locka Executive Airport waved him over to grab a gold-plated shovel and stand for the photo op.

But Abreu, director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, gently lifted his palm and shook his head. He remained in the wings, beaming and applauding. Afterward, a businessman came up to say hello.

“So sorry you’re leaving, from the bottom of my heart,” he said.

Abreu chuckled. “I’m not dying or anything!”

What he is doing is retiring Friday after nearly eight years as chief of the county-owned Miami International Airport. Unlike his predecessor, who was pressured to leave, the county has repeatedly asked Abreu to stay.

“We’re going to be calling you,” Commissioner Barbara Jordan joked at the Opa-locka event.

His replacement, Emilio González, has been shadowing Abreu for a week, learning the basics before Abreu becomes senior vice president for the international engineering firm Gannett Fleming. González, the former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was selected for the aviation job by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who did not conduct a national search for the high-profile position.

Abreu took the reins in 2005, plucked from his post as Florida Department of Transportation secretary two weeks after the county took over the beleaguered MIA North Terminal project from American Airlines. Abreu’s task: Complete the project, plagued by cost overruns and lawsuits.

“I showed up fat, dumb and happy,” he recalled. “It was helter skelter.”

More here.

Miami city commission: confiscate gambling 'maquinitas'

A week after Miami’s mayor called the video-gaming machines he once championed “illegal,’’ city commissioners directed the administration to arrange the seizure of the 1,000 or so machines scattered across cafeterias and video arcades.

Commissioners, riding an anti-gaming wave flowing through the state legislature — which is set on making the machines illegal — said the devices are out of compliance because not a single operating permit mandated by a 2010 city ordinance has been purchased.

The elected body unanimously told City Manager Johnny Martinez to seize the machines, and urged state legislators to finally declare them illegal.

“I don’t think you can make an argument; they either have a [permit], or they don’t,’’ said Commissioner Francis Suarez, who sponsored the resolution.

Martinez said he will direct police, not code enforcement officers, to confiscate the machines because some of the seizures are likely to be accompanied by arrests. He could not provide a timetable.

More from Charles Rabin here.

Yoani Sánchez arrives in Miami, visits shrine of Cuba's patron saint

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez touched down at Miami International Airport Thursday afternoon and reacted emotionally to reuniting with her family as well as arriving in the heartland of Cuban exiles.

Via her Twitter account, Sánchez said she would be spending the next few days with her sister Yunia, brother-in-law and niece before beginning a public agenda Monday.

One of her first stops Thursday was at La Ermita de la Caridad, the Coconut Grove shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint. She met with Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Rev. Richard Vigoa and Rev. Juan Rumín, rector of the bayside shrine. She also had a picture taken of herself sitting on the seawall at the shrine and dubbed it the “malecon of Miami.’’

Sánchez, who was denied permission to leave Cuba for a dozen years despite many invitations to travel abroad, finally received her passport and began an international tour in February that has already taken her to Latin America, Europe, New York and Washington.

Her outspoken style about daily life in Cuba and the plight of dissidents in her Generación Y blog has earned her well over 15 million hits a month and she has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter.

More from Mimi Whitefield here.