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Hurricane fund foots unrelated work

A $600-million pot of money designed to help southern Dade County recover from Hurricane Andrew has been diverted for projects far from the ravaged area.

The Hurricane Andrew Trust Fund, established four years ago, has helped keep police officers on the streets and city services going when much of the region was in tatters.

But along the way, the fund has been a tempting target for Dade lawmakers outside south Dade. They directed at least $100-million to projects far from the ravaged areas and on south Dade projects that had little to do with the hurricane, according to a review by the Miami Herald.

As the last trust fund dollars are being spent, the south Dade economy limps along, and hundreds of homeowners still await aid to rebuild their houses.

But lifeguards on Miami Beach work out of $13,500 Art Deco lifeguard stands, thanks to the trust fund. And the party goes on nightly at Monty's restaurant in Coconut Grove, which got an $820,000 relief check.

The trust fund "was like a pinata," former Kendall Rep. Art Simon said. "The ill breeze blew into town, the pinata was blown down and cracked open, and a lot of local governments and others scrambled to pick up the goodies. It was hard for legislators to keep focused on our priorities with all this candy on the ground."

About 500 homeowners are still waiting to get new houses or have their damaged homes rebuilt. The trust fund will run out of money before most can be helped.

So far, neither the state Legislature nor the Chiles administration has conducted a detailed study of how the $600-million was spent.

State lawmakers say the Chiles administration should be doing audits. But Gov. Lawton Chiles' office says it is the Legislature's job to request _ and pay for _ any study.

But everyone agrees the state needs to do an analysis, in part to figure out what to do after Florida's next major disaster.

"It makes me uncomfortable knowing we spent $600-million and don't know the impact," said Chiles' budget director, Bob Bradley.

Where did some of the trust fund money go?

Monty's, a Coconut Grove restaurant next door to Miami City Hall that has benefited from government in the past, got $820,000. Hit badly by the hurricane and lacking insurance, Monty's initially asked the federal government to foot the bill. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Monty's request. FEMA said the restaurant in its lease assumed "all risk of damage or loss to the property for any cause whatsoever."

Monty's, which had long hosted fund-raisers for favored elected officials, turned to the city for help and got the Legislature to pay for the damage.

To pay for the Everglades Correctional Institution in western Dade County, which cost $25-million, built at Chiles' insistence.

Miami-Dade Community College, which used $905,000 to buy vacant lots for parking.

Miami Beach, at the urging of Rep. Elaine Bloom, asked for $800,000. That included $363,000 in lost parking revenue and $65,000 in lost electric utility taxes. The city also bought three Art Deco lifeguard stands at $13,500 apiece.

Fort Lauderdale got $106,000, mostly for not having written parking tickets after the storm. But the money also covered shutdowns of two tennis centers, the Hall of Fame Pool and Snyder Park.

Harve Mogul, president of United Way in Dade County, calls the spending for Fort Lauderdale "ridiculous."

"People were living in tents for more than a year in south Dade," he said.