At Miami Port, Security Costs Surging

As police rake overtime, earning $180K salary, problem is lack of training, administrative confusion


Oct. 31--Miami-Dade County Police Officer Luciano "Lucky" Sanchez worked so much overtime at the Port of Miami-Dade in 2005 he nearly tripled his $60,000 base salary to $172,688, county records show.

His colleague Frankie Buckner did even better, turning the same base salary into $180,212. Officer Reinaldo Ruiz managed to turn his $70,200 base salary into $181,561.

Overall, the port's bill from MDPD for police services over the last year was $10.4 million -- $8 million for overtime. Forty-three officers are on pace to more than double their base salaries at the port in 2006. In the process, they routinely exceed an MDPD limit on hours designed to prevent gun-toting officers from working beyond the point of fatigue.

The port's transformation from what MDPD officers who work there called a "dumping ground" for cops to one of the most lucrative workplaces in Miami-Dade County government is partly explained by the free-spending approach to security spurred by the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

But it's also a result of inter-agency fighting, poor management and foreseeable consequences that have cost the county millions while providing life-changing financial rewards for officers who work there.

Sanchez, Ruiz, Buckner and many of the other officers at the port are within a year or two of eligibility for their public employee's pension -- which is calculated based on the officers' best years of income.

In July, Buckner can start receiving a $114,000 annual benefit, based on the formula used by the Florida Retirement System. He will be 47. Without overtime, that annual pension would have been about $48,000.

"That's the system they pay us through; we didn't design the system," Buckner said, acknowledging that he kept an eye on what his recent overtime was adding to his retirement package.

Sanchez and Ruiz could not be reached for comment.

When County Manager George Burgess saw the overall numbers a few months ago, he said, his first reaction was, "My God, what the hell is all of this?"

Former Port Director Charles Towsley, who resigned in June, said, "there's nothing that frustrated me more than trying to wrestle with the unreasonable cost of security."

SECURITY PLAN

The root of the problem, according to MDPD Maj. Connie Cooper, is that the port's formal Facility Security Plan assigns too many routine tasks, like inspecting trucks full of Pepsi bound for the cruise ships, to sworn MDPD officers instead of to the port's much less expensive civilian security guards.

The plan, required by the U.S. Coast Guard and written by former MDPD Chief and Port Security Director Nelson Oramus, was filed in the summer of 2003. By fall 2004, port administrators and police officials were fighting over how to control security costs.

The issue came to head that fall when the Coast Guard threatened to shut the port down for failing to abide by its own expensive security plan.

Cooper said the plan's failure to divide labor between police and security guards was fiscally "insane." But the only way to comply quickly, and keep the port open, was to offer her troops the kind of overtime that can nearly triple a salary and more than double a pension.

"When I started, I thought it would be a short-lived overtime," until the Facility Security Plan could be changed and the security guards could be trained to take over some of the work, Cooper said. "Unfortunately, that's not what happened."

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