Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez is in a new hot seat. This one will soon find him behind the wheel of a BMW 550I luxury sedan. He is set to lease it in the coming days under a longstanding county car allowance program. It allows top county executives and commissioners to spend up to $800 per month on car leases. Alvarez’s lease will be north of $1000 per month and he will pay the difference out of his own pocket.
In a time of huge budget and program cuts perception is everything and Alvarez is defending himself. He told me, “The big question is not whether I drive a BMW because I have been driving one for ten years. The bigger question is (whether) this is a benefit that should be continued. I think it is something that needs to be looked at.”
In 1992, Miami-Dade began offering the allowance/lease option, but hard times now put everything on the table. “Is it fair, is it time to change, Alvarez said. “Those are valid questions but I don’t think the mayor should be singled out as the person doing this because it is just not accurate.”
County documents show commissioners are leasing or renting cars—from a Cadillac to a Lexus to an Infiniti and a Honda Pilot—for lease prices ranging from $674 a month to more than $950 a month.
A frustrated Alvarez said, “We have reduced the budget of the county executive office by upwards of two million dollars. Anyone mention that? I mean, two million, and we focus on the mayor’s BMW.”
I asked Alvarez if he was ignoring the value of symbolism. He said, “There will always be something for symbolism and I am not willing to live my life like that. I mean, because someone points out something I am supposed to react even though it is not wrong and (the program) has been around 20 years. What will be next?”
What is next includes wrestling with declining property values and an ongoing budget crisis. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake for county programs. Car leases and other perks may be drops in that bucket but they are creating big ripples of discontent at a time when government leaders are preaching austerity.