MIAMI (CBSMiami.com) – In what may be his last State of the County address, embattled Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Alvarez admitted that he has made mistakes as the county’s ‘strong mayor’, but in comments that appeared addressed to those seeking to have him recalled from office, he urged critics to abandon efforts to “divide us politically” and to work with him.
Speaking before a packed Miami-Dade commission chamber with an audience made up mostly of county employees and elected officials, the mayor’s speech was heavy on the accomplishments of his administration in tough economic times, and salted with comments appeared addressed to those who are trying to have him removed from office.
That recall effort, led by billionaire businessman Norman Braman, was sparked by the Mayor’s decision to raise taxes while increasing some county worker salaries. Alvarez acknowledged he had made some voters unhappy.
“I am aware that my recommendations haven’t always been popular, and they certainly haven’t been politically safe. I am the first one to admit I have made some mistakes,” he said. “But I can stand before you today and say, without hesitation, that it has never been about me or my popularity. It has always been about doing right by the community that I serve.”
Alvarez defended some of what he called his “tough decisions.”
“First and foremost, we didn’t put the safety of our community at risk,” he said. “We rejected the idea of laying off more than 200 police officers who keep criminals and predators off our streets.”
He also defended decision he said kept Miami-Dade Fire Rescue strong.
“Our budget prevented the layoffs of more than 400 firefighters, maintains response times, keeps fire stations open and units in service, he said.”
But addressing one of the major criticisms against him, without ever referring to the recall effort, Alvarez said the county did take steps to keep the budget in check by cutting salaries.
“We have fewer employees today than we have had since the 1990s,” he said. “Most employees of this government are making less today than two years ago.”
Despite the tax increases that have fueled the recall, Alvarez said the county had addressed $1 billion in budget shortfalls over the last 4 years.
“Our belt tightening isn’t done,” he said “All of our department directors have been told,again, to identify cuts to reduce their budgets by three percent.”
Seeming to reach out to his critics, he asked people to reject the county challenges as a chance to score “political points.”
“Attacks are easy. Solutions are hard,” he said.
He asked critics to take his outstretched hand, and seemed to speak directly to the voters who may have the chance to turn him out of office next month.
“I have overwhelming confidence in the citizens of Miami-Dade County,” he said. “I am confident that once they have all the facts…once they compare what could have been to what actually is…they will reject cynicism and negativity in favor of optimism and hope for our collective future. ”
The mayor’s critics say he did an about face last year, agreeing to union givebacks of $132 million that set the stage for the controversial property tax rate hike at the center of the recall effort.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, who wants to be mayor himself, told reporters Wednesday, “We didn’t have to raise taxes.” He continued talking about the controversial Marlins ballpark, “Certainly I would have spent that money at the convention center instead of a baseball stadium. We’d have a lot more jobs created out of that.”
On the other side, Commissioner Natacha Seijas, who is fighting to get her name off of a recall ballot with Mayor Alvarez said, “He (Mayor Alvarez) did make tough calls and I made tough calls, but it was for the best of the community. I have no regrets.”
Alvarez also dealt with specifics he believes shows how the county is responding to the nation’s economic problems.
“We recognized the economic downturn for what it was: an opportunity,” he said.
Acknowledging the county’s 13% unemployment rate is still too high, he said a host of county supported projects, ranging from the port tunnel project to the new Marlins ballpark, have created or saved almost 3 thousand jobs.
He said the county has a balanced budget, solid bond ratings, and cash reserves, but pointed out problems that need to be addressed.
Mayor Alvarez said he was disappointed the new federal budget did not include money for the “Deep Dredge” project to help prepare the Port of Miami for new, larger cargo ships, and issued a call to elected officials in Tallahassee and Washington to put aside differences and work to provide this funding.
He also addressed the continued financial problems at Jackson Memorial Hospital, the county operated hospital of last resort for the poor and. Without offering specifics, Alvarez said, “We have got to do everything within our power to keep Jackson Health System viable.”
Mayor Alvarez said despite the county’s problems, he believes county government has the plans and the resources to pull through.
“We haven’t shut the door on opportunity. We aren’t marking time. We are moving forward, and our collective success relies on having a vision, staying the course, and pulling together in a positive way to move Miami-Dade County forward.