State must send sewer money here

By Steve Estes

As the state continues to bail out on promised money for the construction of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater system, local residents are beginning to dig in their heels over the possibility of paying full freight for the $150 million project.

The Cudjoe Regional will be the county’s last, and largest, central wastewater collection system, serving residents from Lower Sugarloaf to Big Pine Key. At full capacity, it will serve about 10,000 units.

Residents in the Cudjoe Regional will already be asked to pay a larger hook up fee than any other area yet served by county sewers. The other fees ranged from $2,700 per unit to $4,500 per unit. Property owners in the Cudjoe Regional will be asked to pay $5,700.

The state told Monroe County more than a decade ago that the county would have to upgrade wastewater treatment to advanced standards by 2010.

Money dried up and the first deadline came and went with completion still only about 50 percent accomplished.

The state, cognizant that Monroe County didn’t have the funds to go it alone, authorized $200 million in bonds to help us out. Four years have passed and no State Legislature has allocated that money.

The deadline was pushed back to December 2015, and we were still hopeful that the state would come through with its promised funding.

This year, we’ve been told to pound sand. The money’s not coming.

Without help from the state, it will fall completely on the shoulders of the local residents to pay for the $150 million system, an endeavor that could cost every property owner at least $100 per month, more if the hook-up fees are amortized through the tax bill.

And that’s only if the folks in the rest of the county agree to extend a one-cent sales tax they’ve already been paying for more than 20 years for another 15 years.

Monroe County is one of the most environmentally sensitive areas of Florida. There are species here that exist nowhere else in the world, and we are the front-line stewards of America’s last living coral reef.

Water quality is important here. Very important.

Knowing all that, the state officials still take a hard line stance, demanding that we finish the sewer projects by the end of 2015 and that we do that without money from their coffers.

Simply put, that’s probably not going to happen.

Engineers have already opined that the Cudjoe Regional couldn’t be completed by December 2015 if we broke ground tomorrow. There is too much ground to cover and too many hurdles with water crossings and remote area hook-ups to make that possible.

If the state really wants to be a good partner, it will extend the deadline until it finds some money to pony up for the cause.

If the state doesn’t want to push back the deadline for fear that county officials will sit back on their haunches and wait, then the Legislature needs to cut loose about half of the promised $200 very soon so we can get started.

Local folks have said, loudly, that they won’t be happy if they’re forced to pay the entire cost of the $150 million system.

They are planning to petition the state to make itself a better partner in this unfunded mandate, and petition county commissioners to stand their ground and not allow an unfunded mandate to run thousands of people out of the Keys who can’t afford both the up front cost and the possible $200 per month sewer bills.

We fully support that effort.

The vision many people in Florida have of the Keys is that we are a bunch of crybaby millionaires living in $200,000-plus homes looking for a hand out.

Tell that to the retiree living on a fixed income who bought a house years ago and is managing to hold on in today’s high-priced world by pinching pennies until the copper cries for mercy.

Tell that to the young family that came to the Keys for its low crime rate and rural ambiance, struggling to put food on the table in the county known for the highest cost of living, due to housing, in the state.

Tell that to the young professionals working in our schools, our law enforcement, our hospitals, who have enough guaranteed paycheck to survive, as long as the demand on their dollars doesn’t get much higher.

If local residents what to thumb their collective noses at the state and demand that our Tallahassee tax dollars come back to us in some fashion, even if only to put pipes in the ground we may never see again, we stand behind that effort.

The days of unfunded mandates from state government to Monroe County have to end.

We can’t afford their largesse anymore.

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