B&G Interview: Questions for Carlos Alvarez and George Burgess

A conversation with the mayor and county manager of Miami-Dade
June 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez and County Manager George Burgess lead the day-to-day operations of one of the largest governments in the Southeast United States with nearly 30,000 employees and a budget of $6.9 billion. Last January, Miami-Dade voters agreed to grant Mayor Alvarez "strong mayor" powers. As a result, the county is currently in a transition from one in which its commissioners ran the show to one in which Alvarez is clearly the boss.

Not only did the county mayor and county manager agree to be interviewed, in person, for the B&G Report, they made themselves available for a little experiment. The "B" of "B&G" (Katherine Barrett) interviewed the mayor, while the "G" (Richard Greene) interviewed the county manager. Both interviewers were equipped with parallel sets of questions. The goal was not to catch the two men in inconsistencies; but rather to give them absolute freedom to reflect on the questions entirely from their own, clearly different, points of view.

By and large, their answers genuinely complemented one another. Just one small schism appeared, which readers will find in the little word association quiz that follows under "outsourcing." Given the nature of the split conversations, neither interviewer was able to follow up on this at the time. But it sure feels like there are going to be some interesting questions on this topic in Miami-Dade's future.

--Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene

Q. Miami-Dade recently moved to a "strong mayor" form of government, instead of one in which the city was effectively run by thirteen commissioners and a weak mayor who in turn delegated authority to the county manager. What's been the most significant impact?

Mayor Alvarez: For the mayor, it's the ability to get involved in the day-to-day operation with county departments without having to go through the manager, which makes it much easier to conduct business. It's not a matter of not wanting to go through the manager, but so many things are happening. If the mayor is going to be held responsible, for example, he should be able to make appointments. And under the current structure, I can. The mayor couldn't before. The office was prohibited from making personnel decisions. From the manager's point of view, now he has only one voice [to listen to] instead of 14.

County Manager Burgess: Now the manager reports directly to the mayor and not to both the mayor and the Board of County Commissioners. We work together very well. He expects people to deliver. He holds people accountable and expects results. In the eyes of many, this initiative, which passed January 23rd gave the mayor more power, relative to the county manager. But it really defined his powers more clearly related to the county commission. Now, I work for the mayor exclusively. But I also work with the commissioners. We have seaports, environmental agencies, airports, police, park, public service, mass transit and I can go on and on. It is a big business and requires professional administration. The mayor realizes that and is very supportive of our efforts.

Q. The word "accountability" gets used an awful lot these days. What does it mean for you, in terms of Miami-Dade?

Mayor Alvarez: The voters have the ultimate say-so if you're an elected official. Before becoming mayor I was director of the largest department in county government: police. $450 million and 5,000 employees. I don't talk about accountability - I demonstrate accountability. If the manager held me accountable, I would hold the majors, the captains, the lieutenants accountable for what they do. That's the message. It's crucial. It's extremely important that as a leader you tell the people under you what you expect of them and then you follow through. I have a different perspective than your normal elected official. I was a public administrator for a long time. I was director of the police department for 7 years and in the police department for 28 years.

County Manager Burgess: The term accountability has been beaten to death. Clearly we are going to hold people accountable, for both good and poor performance. We need to remember that people are going to make mistakes from time to time. Anybody who thinks they have an organization that's infallible is going to be kidding you. You have to recognize the good and the not so good. It's not: "I need to find someone who is responsible, so I can blame them."

We do annual business plans now. We're very outcome-oriented and we measure performance in both qualitative and quantitative terms. How do we know where we're going to be in five years if we do not have a strategic roadmap? We develop five-year strategic and financial plans and annual business plans. On a monthly basis, I meet with my department directors and review their departmental performance. How are they doing halfway through the fiscal cycle? We'll evaluate and react accordingly.

Q. Over the years, there have been issues with procurement in Miami-Dade County. What's your biggest challenge right now?

Mayor Alvarez: We have a large bureaucracy. And though we've made a lot of improvements, I believe that one of the challenges we still face is the time it takes from the beginning of the procurement process to the awarding of the contract. That's something that needs to be expedited. I believe that the legislative body should not be involved in the process of approving contracts. They should be a reviewer but not an approval. Our commission is made up of 13 elected officials, and, depending on the size of the contract, you'll have some lobbying and some other issues come into play that really shouldn't. The challenge would be expediting the process and keeping politics out of the procurement process.

County Manager Burgess: In government purchasing, you want transparency. We want to make sure there's competition wherever possible. And we want to make sure there's inclusion and distribution among small businesses where possible to allow small business to have a chance to be involved in the business of government. We, over the last several years, have reformed and refined our procurement process and in recent years have been recognized as one of the better-managed government purchasing operations in the country by the National Institute of Government Purchasing.

Our commission has delegated more authority to management. It allows us to procure more things without going through the political process. Time is money. And our board has given us some very large approval thresholds. In certain kinds of approvals, goods and services, I have authority up to $1 million.

Q. There have been some proposals for tax reform in the state of Florida that seem like they'd be troublesome to counties and cities. What do you think?

Mayor Alvarez: The original proposal was to roll back property taxes to 2001 levels, which would have cut the county's budget by over $700 million and that would have been catastrophic. That has gone away. There are other proposals on the table now and nobody knows what's going to pass. A lot of folks want tax relief and I'm for tax relief, but depending on the cuts you make, there will be consequences. My concern is that local governments are the ones that have to provide the services to the people and my concern is that maybe some folks in Tallahassee don't take that into account

County Manager Burgess: There's a state legislative session [this month] to try to come up with a solution. Legislators have been saying, "Look at this property tax market. It's so robust." While property tax relief is needed given the rapid increase in property values we must also ensure essential local government services are able to continue and that other services desired by our local residents are preserved as well. If a legislator says "I just want to see deep rollbacks in rates," that could be cataclysmic. Instead, they have to fix the inequities in the method of property-tax assessment in the State of Florida so we can maintain quality services and provide tax relief for those who are being overtaxed or inequitably taxed.

Q. Let's play a word association game. We'll provide five words, and without any thought we'd like you to respond with the first word that comes to mind:

Mayor Alvarez:

Citizen: "Responsibility"

Budget: "Money"

Bureaucracy: "Large"

Technology: "Future"

Outsourcing: "Not for it. Unions."

County Manager Burgess:

Citizen: "Customer"

Budget: "Responsibility"

Bureaucracy: "Public servants"

Technology: "Efficiency"

Outsourcing: "Productivity, when it makes sense."

Q. For the county mayor: What are the scariest words you could hear from your county manager?

Alvarez: That's hard to answer. There are so many things going on. I would venture it would have to do with public safety, something that occurs in the county with fire or police or some sort of emergency to do with public safety and the welfare of our community.

Q. For the county manager: What are the scariest words you could hear from your mayor?

Burgess: There's little that scares me. If he were to say, "I want something done and done now," I would be pleased. You talk to folks on my staff and they would say we are pretty driven. I don't know what he could say that could shake me up.