Florida’s Unwrapped Gift to Taxpayers

People who don’t do their jobs are usually held accountable, right? Not if you work for Miami-Dade County.

Robert Akras, a Miami-Dade County property surveyor who makes $86,238 a year has been missing in action from work. This did not sit well with newly elected Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who has tried to fire Akras for not showing up for work, but was advised against doing so by Miami-Dade County Attorney Robert Cuevas.

Why would the public’s legal counsel give advice against holding civil servants accountable?

This is the result of a practice known as union release time, whereby members of public employee unions can go on leave to do union business—on the taxpayer’s dime. This taxpayer-funded union subsidy is agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreements between the union and county government.

Currently, over 42 Miami-Dade workers engage in this practice full-time, costing the county over $2.65 million, according to The Miami Herald. An additional 135 county employees take union release time on an as-needed basis. Worse, government employees on union release time face no oversight from elected representatives. Can anything be done about this?

Yes. If Mr. Lopez-Cantera is sincere in his attempt to hold Miami-Dade County employees accountable and eliminate union release time, he should look to Arizona.

In April 2013, the Superior Court of Arizona Maricopa County court struck down—for the second time—the union release time provisions in the collective bargaining agreement between the City of Phoenix and the Police Law Enforcement Association. The court ruled that the provisions are unlawful under Arizona’s Gift Clause, which forbids the state or any political subdivision therein from making any donation or grant, via subsidy or other means, to any private individual, association, or corporation.

In order to direct public funds to a private party in accordance with the Arizona Gift Clause, two components of a two-part analysis must be met. First, public funds to a private entity must promote a public purpose. Second, the public entity must receive a proportionate, quantifiable, and direct benefit for the aid given.

The court established PLEA uses release time to advance the interests of its members only. Judge Katherine Cooper stated in her decision, “[R]elease time does not advance a public purpose. It diverts resources away from the mission of the Phoenix Police Department, which is the safety of the community.” She found that the benefits of release time accrue exclusively to police employees and that there is no accountability for how union release time is spent.

To provide sufficient consideration under the Gift Clause, the private entity must promise to provide fair-market value in return for a direct and quantifiable public benefit. Since the labor contract between PLEA and the City of Phoenix does not require the union to perform any service in return for the $1.7 million of official time over the two-year life of the contract, the court held the issuance of union release time does not meet either standard for a proper public expenditure under the Gift Clause. The court issued an injunction and enjoined the provisions allowing for union release time.

The government of Miami-Dade County, like that of Phoenix, does not require any compensation or holds the union accountable for the activity performed on union release time. Fortunately, Florida’s constitution contains a similar Gift Clause in Article VII Section 10, which states, “Neither the state nor any county, school district, municipality, special district, or agency of any of them, shall… give, lend or use its taxing power or credit to aid any corporation, association, partnership or person.”

Now if Lopez-Cantera really wants to “stand up for the taxpayers” of Miami he has a legal foundation to stand on.