At Miami Port, Security Costs Surging

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."

The strategy more than doubled the overtime spending for 2005, raising it to $6.4 million from $2.9 million in 2004.

Oramus, who has since retired and recently worked as a technical consultant on the film Miami Vice, said his plan assigned tasks to "MDPD" because both the police and the port's nonsworn security guards worked under the police director at the time. In no way was it meant to assign all the work to sworn officers, Oramus said.

PORT EMPLOYEES NOW

The security guards have since been shifted, and are now technically Port of Miami-Dade employees.

"I've heard before that they blame the plan for all the overtime," Oramus said in an interview. "If that's the case, why didn't they just file an amendment and change the plan? It's very, very easy."

Oramus said that when he worked at the port, "we got a lot of resistance from the police," both MDPD and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, any time he tried to use the nonsworn guards to do even the most basic jobs, like directing traffic.

Capt. Suzanne Englebert, from the U.S. Coast Guard station in Miami, seemed incredulous when told that MDPD officials said they had to pay the overtime to abide by the plan. "The Facility Security Plan can be changed and amended at any time," she said. "It is not set in stone," she said.

Both Cooper, and newly appointed port director Bill Johnson, said that changes to the security plan have been submitted to the Coast Guard. If approved, many of the MDPD's current duties will be shifted to lower-paid security guards.

The Coast Guard received the plan, and has sent it back to the port for revisions unrelated to the division of labor among security forces, Englebert said.

County officials refused to show the plan to The Miami Herald, or even to quote from it because it is classified as "Security Sensitive Information." For the same reason, they declined to provide much detail about what the police officers do at the port.

But according to Towsley, two uniformed MDPD officers search each delivery truck heading toward a cruise ship. Police rules require the second officer to be present as backup. Since cruise ships load at odd hours, the pair is always on overtime, Towsley said.

"Why not have one sworn officer and one security guard? That's what they do at the airport," said Oramus, who also wrote the post 9/11 security plan from Miami International Airport.

Buckner, who worked more than 2,000 hours of overtime in 2005, searches trucks regularly. He said he has never found anything suspicious, but others have. "Mostly cocaine, though," not tools of terror, he said.

Another of the MDPD duties at the port is patrolling the cruise lines' busy passenger terminals. But the police don't check IDs or screen luggage. Those jobs go to sizable private security forces hired by the cruise lines.

'I HAVE A GUN'

"We take care of disturbances in the terminal when passengers get rowdy," Buckner said. "I have a gun, [cruise line security guards] don't."

Other security duties at the port are handled by federal and state agencies. Federal customs officers are charged with inspecting the large cargo containers, and screening passengers on ships arriving from overseas. Florida Fish and Wildlife patrols the waters of Government Cut, where the cruise ships dock.

MDPD officials who work at the port said the high percentage of port officers approaching retirement is a legacy from the days before 9/11, when the post was not a high priority.

"In every officer's career, there comes a point where they need to be sent somewhere where they aren't interacting with the public on a daily basis. This was one of those places," said Capt. Gary Shimminger.

"Every organization has its Siberia," added Sgt. Norberto Gonzalez.

Buckner, whose regular assignment is an administrative job in the Northside Office, said all the overtime at the port exacts a personal toll.

"A lot of guys don't want to stand out on Port Boulevard in the summer, when it's 113 degrees, crawling in and out of trucks," he said. "I give up a lot of time with my family."

Like other officers working the port, Buckner routinely exceeds the department's safety rule that prohibits officers from working more than 80 hours at regular time and 64 hours of "voluntary" overtime in any two-week pay period.

For the two weeks ending July 30, he worked 80 hours at regular time and 94.5 hours of overtime, county records show. In the same pay period, a colleague worked 80 hours at regular time and 104 hours of overtime.

Cooper said that there are so few officers trained to work the port that they are compelled to take the overtime. Therefore, the rule on "voluntary" overtime does not apply.

CHECKING FOR FATIGUE

But, she said, she gets regular memos naming the officers who have exceeded the limit and checks with their supervisors to make sure they are not showing signs of fatigue.

MDPD Director Robert Parker said he has no problem with the officers exceeding the limit, as long as they can do it "safely, legitimately and within the rules."

MDPD officers at the port exceeded the limit at least 128 times in the first seven months of 2006, county records show.

<<Miami Herald, The (KRT) -- 11/01/06>>

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