Corrects mayor's age in paragraph 11
By Kevin Gray
MIAMI (Reuters) - Voters in one of the most populous counties in the United States went to the polls on Tuesday for a recall vote, spearheaded by a billionaire anti-tax crusader, aimed at toppling a once-popular Republican mayor.
A recent poll published in the Miami Herald showed Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez heading for almost certain defeat in the vote, which would be the biggest U.S. recall since California voters tossed out former Governor Gray Davis in 2003.
Miami-Dade County, which includes Miami, is home to about 2.5 million people.
A simple majority is required for the recall. If Alvarez loses, county commissioners can either appoint an executive to serve out his term through late 2012 or call a special election.
The Cuban-born Alvarez came under criticism last year when Miami-Dade, saddled with record high 12 percent unemployment and the same budget deficits faced by many local and state governments, introduced a property tax increase to help fund vital services including police and public schools.
The 14 percent tax hike was imposed despite double-digit declines in real estate values as south Florida was hammered by the housing and mortgage foreclosure crisis.
Norman Braman, an auto dealer mogul listed by Forbes magazine among the 400 wealthiest Americans, bankrolled the recall petition drive that led to Tuesday's vote. Local media reports say he has spent about $1 million on the effort, which he orchestrated through two political action committees.
Braman, known in Miami for leading a campaign to halt a one-cent sales tax increase for mass transit improvements in the late 1990s, strongly opposed a baseball stadium deal and the property tax rise forced through by Alvarez.
"We've been hit hard," he told Reuters in an interview in January.
"The federal government is cutting taxes, state governments have cut taxes to stimulate the economy. But here we're doing the opposite -- we're raising them," he said.
Alvarez, who is 58, was also criticized for raising salaries for some county employees as well as backing a deal to use nearly $350 million in public funds to build a new stadium to house the Florida Marlins baseball team in Miami's Little Havana district.
"Why would you raise property taxes when many people are fighting just to hold on to their homes? And then he raises salaries for some county workers," said Olga Navon, a 45-year-old housewife, who voted in favor of ousting Alvarez.
"He should have looked for another solution and been more sensitive at a time when people are worried about the economy and their jobs," she said.
(Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Eric Walsh)