Florida Bulldog: Miami-Dade Commissioner questions value of $3.7 million Beacon Council subsidy

Original link here: http://www.floridabulldog.org/2016/10/miami-dade-commissioner-questions-value-of-3-7-million-beacon-council-subsidy/

An elected official’s recent inquiry into The Beacon Council, a private agency that is tasked with keeping companies in Miami-Dade and attracting new ones, revealed that 10 firms that supposedly received assistance in the past year have either zero presence or no employees based locally.

County Commissioner Xavier Suarez said his investigation raises doubt about whether Miami-Dade should continue subsidizing The Beacon Council, which it does to the tune of $3.7 million a year.

“My instinct tells me we could use that money more effectively for micro-loans and insurance subsidies for small businesses,” Suarez told Florida Bulldog. “Just about anything else but giving money to The Beacon Council bureaucracy makes more sense.”

Dyan Brasington, The Beacon Council’s executive vice president of economic development, defended the agency’s performance in an email statement that claimed the agency facilitated the creation and retention of 2,840 jobs in the past fiscal year.

“These jobs contribute an estimated $50 million to the local economy and help families thrive and prosper while generating additional indirect jobs,” Brasington said. “The companies that have expanded or located to Miami-Dade will spend $188.2 million in new capital investment and occupy over 1 million square feet of commercial space.”

Suarez colleague Daniella Levine Cava, a Beacon Council board member, also defended the agency’s track record. “I think the Beacon Council has done a good job in the narrow aspect of economic development,” the county commissioner from South Dade said. “What they have done has not been effectively communicated to the public.”

However, Suarez’s probe turned up some troubling evidence when members of his staff attempted to verify The Beacon Council’s assertions in its Third Quarter Key Performance Indicators Report. During the first week in August, Suarez’s staffers conducted on-site visits to the addresses of the 10 firms that were provided to The Beacon Council, according to an Aug. 22 memo the county commissioner sent the agency’s then-CEO Larry K. Williams.

For instance, on Aug. 10, Suarez aide Joanne Padron visited The Doral Professional Center at 7950 NW 53rd St., where Alpha Trade, a construction materials import and export business that received Beacon Council assistance, supposedly had an office suite. Instead, Padron found Offix Solutions, a shared-office space for multiple companies with a single receptionist, who informed her that no one from Alpha Trade was available to meet with her.

Padron was also unable to find any state incorporation records for Alpha Trade or its phone number. On Oct. 21, during a visit to Offix Solutions, the receptionist told a Florida Bulldog reporter that there was no Alpha Trade located in their shared office space and that the company’s CEO, Sergio Santa Ana, was not listed in their directory. “I’ve got an Alpha International,” she said. “But there’s no one with the name Sergio Santa Ana. Maybe they went out of business.”

Santa Ana did not respond to a request for comment sent to an email address listed on Alpha Trade’s Facebook page, which lists the Offix Solutions location as the company’s location.

Another Suarez aide, Ela Pestano, stopped by 2330 Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables on Aug. 12 to verify the existence of GeoGlobal USA, a start-up company that is going to import and sell home goods and furniture in the United States and Mexico, according to The Beacon Council’s third-quarter report. The agency claims it helped GeoGlobal by providing contacts, referrals, training and workforce recruitment assistance.

Pestano informed Suarez she found an accounting firm, Hernandez & Co., at 2330 Ponce de Leon Boulevard, but no GeoGlobal. She also visited another address in Doral that GeoGlobal listed in its state incorporation records that turned out to be the headquarters for A Customs Brokerage, a shipping and logistic company. Padron told her boss that individuals at Hernandez & Co. and A Customs Brokerage had never heard of GeoGlobal.

Florida Bulldog visited Hernandez & Co. and A Customs Brokerage the same day as Offix Solutions. A woman at the accounting firm said GeoGlobal was her client and uses 2330 Ponce de Leon Boulevard as a mailing address. She declined to provide Florida Bulldog with a contact person for GeoGlobal. At A Customs, a company representative also said GeoGlobal was a client that used their address, but was not physically located there.

Suarez’s aides turned up similar results for the eight other firms identified in The Beacon Council’s third-quarter report.

According to a Sept. 2 memo from Williams to Suarez, The Beacon Council’s then-CEO informed the commissioner that it was not unusual for new companies like Alpha Trade and GeoGlobal to have temporary office space before establishing a permanent address. “Given the nature of decision making for corporate relocations and expansions, the outcome of your staff’s outreach does not surprise me,” Williams said. “The person knowledgeable about the transaction is not the person at the reception desk and is sometimes in a different office.”

In his response to Florida Bulldog, Brasington said CEOs and executives whose companies receive Beacon Council assistance must attest in writing to the work the agency provides their businesses. “Company leaders often do not share information about location or expansion decisions with employees or even middle management, which is why some employees may not be aware of the assistance provided by The Beacon Council,” Brasington explained. “The economic development process of educating and then recruiting or retaining businesses can be lengthy.”

However, the same week Williams sent Suarez the letter, he resigned as Beacon Council CEO to assume the same role for Atlanta’s Technology Association of Georgia, where he was previously a vice president. The commissioner’s inquest occurred just as The Beacon Council — which relies on $3.7 million in county permitting fees for its $5.2 million annual budget — became an issue in the county mayor’s race. Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, who is in a runoff with County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, has made eliminating The Beacon Council one of her campaign promises.

Suarez told Florida Bulldog he held a public meeting earlier this month with Levine Cava and Beacon Council chairman and Greenberg Traurig co-managing shareholder Jaret Davis to discuss his findings. “I stated my views that a lot of people in the business community don’t see the sense in giving $3.7 million to The Beacon Council for promoting economic development,” Suarez said. “I am leaving it in the hands of my colleague, who expressed some of the same concerns I have.”

Levine Cava told Florida Bulldog that The Beacon Council does have room for improvement, but doesn’t believe it should be cut off from county funding. “I found The Beacon Council’s response to Suarez to be credible,” she said. “In each case, there was a logical explanation for what his staff found. There is nothing that cries out a problem exists.”

WLRN: Miami-Dade County Bans Fracking, Citing Multiple Environmental Concerns

Fracking is now banned in Miami-Dade County, thanks to an ordinance passed unanimously last Wednesday by county commissioners.

The process captures natural gas reserves by injecting high pressure streams of water, sand and chemicals into the earth. The Miami-Dade ordinance says fracking could contaminate county water supplies, including the Biscayne Aquifier, where many South Florida residents get their water.

“The risk of leaching of those chemicals into the aquifer is very real,” said District 8 Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, the ordinance’s sponsor. “Just imagine that our water supply is put in jeopardy. What a nightmare it would be.”

In addition to concerns about possible water contamination, the Miami-Dade ban also reflects concerns that fracking pollutes air and soil and increases seismic activity. It notes the chemicals used in fracking are usually kept as trade secrets and are not well-regulated by the state of Florida or the federal government.

Levine Cava said the Miami-Dade ban took about two years to come about, but was buoyed by a fracking well being operated in Collier County, and by the Florida Legislature’s decision to not implement statewide fracking regulations.

“I was very distressed about it, as were many others,” she said of the legislature’s decision. “We’d like to see Florida ban fracking… we’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Levine Cava said that although Miami-Dade is a relatively urban county, she feared fracking might occur in or near the Everglades if there weren’t regulation.

The new Miami-Dade fracking ban is written into the county zoning code, so even if the Florida Legislature decides to allow fracking statewide, the ban would likely hold in Miami-Dade.

Still, it’s possible to get an exception from the Miami-Dade ban. Applicants for exceptions would have to show their fracking plan poses no threat to the environment, the water supply or the population. They’d also have to disclose the chemicals they would use.

Levine Cava said she thinks the county’s ban creates a “nearly impossible” burden for individuals and companies interested in fracking. “The burden is on the applicant… to prove there is no harm,” she said.

More than 80 Florida cities and counties have banned or expressed opposition to fracking.

View the original article here.

International Business Times, Fracking Water Pollution: Miami Pushes Ban to Protect Florida Water Supply

Citing concerns that fracking in their county could ruin the water supply, officials in Miami-Dade County, Florida, have formally proposed banning the natural gas extraction method outright.

A county commission will debate the measure Tuesday during a public meeting. The potential ban comes just months after the state Senate failed to pass legislation that would have prohibited local governments from regulating fracking on their own.

“This is about our water supply,” Daniella Levine Cava, a commissioner and the sponsor of the ordinance, told the Miami New Times. “In this kind of acid fracking, the chemicals are potentially very dangerous and not disclosed. The risk of them entering into our water supply through our porous limestone substrate is too high.”

Fracking is particularly controversial in Miami-Dade County because the whole place sits on top of the Biscayne Aquifer, which supplies water to a large number of Floridians. If that water supply were polluted by any source, scientists have said, then it is likely that the aquifer would remain polluted forever. Fracking in the county would require penetrating that aquifer. If something went wrong — the chemicals injected into the ground are “trade secrets” and undisclosed by the companies — then that water supply would be at risk.

Fracking became formally legal in Florida earlier this year. Much of the state sits atop fragile aquifers and the state has a sponge-like geology so residents have been quick to voice concerns that the worst case scenario could lead to contaminated water sources. There are at least 57 communities in Florida that have passed resolutions banning the gas extraction method in their towns and cities.

Nationally, Ohio, Texas and Oklahoma are the only states to have made it illegal for local governments and communities to ban fracking. 

The Environmental Protection Agency found last year that fracking doesn’t pose a significant threat to drinking water — and has been criticized heavily for those findings. Those critiques have come even from members of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which said in January that the prior EPA conclusions about the impact of fracking on drinking water were not supported by the data that they analyzed.

View the original article here.

Miami New Times: Miami-Dade County wants to ban fracking

Update: The county passed its ban on fracking.

If a few state senators had voted differently last February, Miami-Dade County would have had zero control over whether oil companies could build fracking wells on county soil. That’s because the Florida Senate proposed a bill that would have banned local governments from regulating the controversial oil-drilling process.

Critics blasted the measure, saying it would have given oil companies carte blanche to buy off the state Legislature and start fracking across Florida. 

Thankfully, that bill failed. And now Miami-Dade County has formally proposed banning fracking outright. The commission will debate the measure, which would declare fracking illegal in the county zoning code, at its public meeting this Tuesday.

“This is about our water supply,” the ordinance’s sponsor, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, tells New Times. “In this kind of acid fracking, the chemicals are potentially very dangerous and not disclosed. The risk of them entering our water supply through our porous limestone substrate is too high.”

Almost all of Miami-Dade County sits atop the Biscayne Aquifer, one of the largest sources of drinking water in all of Florida. The aquifer is protected by a thin layer of porous limestone, and independent scientists have agreed for years that if the aquifer were polluted, it would likely remain that way permanently. Fracking in South Florida would require drilling through that aquifer.

During fracking, a mixture of water, sand, and “fracking fluid” is injected underground to break up hard-to-penetrate rock and reach oil and natural gas underneath. As it stands, the chemicals used in fracking fluid remain “trade secrets,” and oil companies are not required to disclose them to the public. If the well leaks, it could spill thousands of gallons of potentially harmful, unknown chemicals into the aquifer.

Fracking proponents — who are mostly either members of the oil industry or pro-industry Republicans such as Gov. Rick Scott — say the use of fracking in America has successfully brought down the worldwide price of oil and created thousands of new American jobs.

But while fracking has led to a drop in oil prices, a number of studies have shown that the jobs fracking wells create are either fewer than oil companies project or vanish once wells dry up. As the fracking boom in North Dakota wanes, several fracking-based “boomtowns” have already fallen into disarray.

Fracking is also linked to earthquakes. There’s now a quake problem in fracking-heavy Oklahoma even though that state has historically never had an earthquake issue.

So Levine Cava’s legislation — which the county commission first discussed in June before amending a small section of the bill — would ban fracking outright by making it illegal in the zoning code. County zoning ordinances would be amended to ban “well stimulation for oil and gas exploration.”

Importantly, the bill does make a small carve-out for variances that “would not be contrary to the public interest” or when enforcing the new law would “result in unnecessary hardship,” among other factors. The County commission would get to approve all of those variances — so if the bill passes, expect some wealthy oil companies to put forth some exceptional effort to persuade the county to let them skirt the rules.

Variances won’t be approved if they cause “structural damage to buildings,” impacts to drinking water, or “increased demand on water resources.” Variances also won’t be granted if the project could leak chemicals or natural gas.

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office has voiced its support for the ban. Deputy Mayor Jack Osterholt wrote a letter to the commission this week backing the measure.

“Fracking in an urbanized county such as ours may have an adverse impact on our residents, economy, environment, and regional wildlife,” he wrote.

Broward County passed its own fracking ban earlier this year. A private company, Kanter Real Estate LLC, had filed an application to drill an “exploratory well” in the Everglades west of Miramar — but if Kanter finds oil, it won’t be allowed to frack anywhere in that county. Oil companies have, for decades, attempted to drill for oil under the Everglades.

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Levine Cava, meanwhile, says she hasn’t yet heard of any organized opposition to Miami-Dade’s measure. In 2015, she persuaded the county to pass a measure urging the state to ban fracking in all of Florida.

“We don’t need to produce the gas or oil locally,” she told New Times. “The small potential benefit to a few landowners is far outweighed by the potential risk to the general public.”

View the original article here.