Sewer assessments to start

By Steve Estes

By the time tax bills hit the homes in the proposed Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System service area in November, residents should have been notified that they owe Monroe County $5,700 more than they anticipated this year.

Last week the Board of County Commissioners approved that figure as what local property owners will pay for every equivalent dwelling unit, roughly equal to the average water flow for a single-family home each month.

The county plans to use the system development fee to pay for about one-third of the costs associated with building the Cudjoe Regional central system that is slated to serve properties between Lower Sugarloaf Key to the west at Lower Sugarloaf Sound and Big Pine Key to the east to Big Spanish and Bahia Honda Channels.

The estimate for that system is about $156 million. Slated to serve 8,800 EDUs at inception and more than 10,000 at capacity, the assessments will raise some $50 million toward the final cost of the project.

According to County Commissioner George Neugent, property owners can pay the entire amount right now and avoid the interest charges that will accrue if they ask the county to amortize the fee over the next 20 years.

If property owners opt for the installation plan, they will be assessed an additional $285 plus interest each year until the amount is paid in 20 years.

Because the charge will be assessed on the yearly tax bill, it will be treated the same as property taxes, although there will be no discounts for early payment.

If the property owner defaults on the assessment, the property will be subject to lien just like any other tax delinquency.

But the assessment fee isn’t the only new charge that will be coming at homeowners as a result of the county deciding to move forward on the Cudjoe Regional system.

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners has also taken the first steps toward establishing a Municipal Services Taxing Unit for the areas that fall under the Cudjoe Regional system.

According to Neugent, the county can levy an assessment up to .7 mils and can run that tab for up to four years.

The MSTU charges will not be used to pay off any construction or debt associated with the development of the Cudjoe Regional system.

That money will instead be used to help the county pay for the administrative costs it incurs for overseeing the project, although the contracts will be administered by the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, or for staff time associated with the project.

The Cudjoe Regional is the county’s largest system to date. Systems for Stock Island, Baypoint, Big Coppitt and smaller areas of Conch Key and Grassy Key have either been completed or are already underway. The Cudjoe Regional is the last system to hit the development phase in unincorporated Monroe. Islamorada is the last municipality to get started.

While most single-family residential homes will pay only the $5,700 assessment, commercial entities that use considerably more water will be charged based on a formula that establishes the number of EDUs used by the location, said Neugent.

“I believe the rate is based on an average of 157 gallons per day per home. You can get a rough estimate for a commercial enterprise by watching your water usage over the months,” he said.

Sewer bills will be based on water usage.

That could work in the favor of some commercial enterprises, said Neugent.

“If you can document that a certain percentage of your water use goes toward landscaping or irrigation and doesn’t wind up in the sewer pipe, you can get a break on the development fee and the monthly charge,” he said.

He also said that commercial entities that use large amounts of water can have a separate meter installed for water that doesn’t wind up going back in the pipe and avoid paying that additional charge.

Those aren’t the only costs that will be faced by homeowners.

Each private property will be responsible for installing its own lateral to get from the home drainage system to the pipe in the street.

The average cost for those laterals can be between $3,000 and $6,000 depending on how far the pipe has to run and the configuration needed to get the effluent to the street and tie into the pipe there.

Of course, some can be higher, said Neugent.

The county plans to pay for another third of the system construction using $30 million it will receive from the state this year from bonds that were approved four years ago but never allocated.

“The other sewer entities will receive larger chunks if we are able to get more of the original $200 million promised in following years,” said Neugent. “One of the caveats to the state money is that it can’t be used to pay down debt, but we have millions in storm water projects that need to be funded in the coming years. We’ll have uses for the money.”

The remainder of the project is planned to be financed by additional revenue from the current one-penny infrastructure sales tax. That tax has been nearly depleted through its expiration in 2018 for other wastewater projects, but the county commission has authorized a voter referendum on the November ballot to ask the voters to extend that tax for another 15 years.

“If the folks in the Cudjoe Regional don’t want to pay for more of the system themselves, they will get out and garner support for the tax extension,” said Neugent. “We have documentation that more than half of that tax is paid by tourists. They use the facilities, they should bear some of the cost.”

The tax will realize about $13 million per year for Monroe County, money that can be used to pay down debt or finish the system if there’s a shortfall, he said.

County officials have filed the wastewater master plan that was approved in 2004 as the one they will follow for the final development of the Cudjoe Regional.

That plan leaves about 290 properties off the central system.

Those are properties that it simply isn’t cost effective to run a pipe to, said Neugent.

Those property owners will have to install state-approved, on-site wastewater systems. FKAA has some grant money to aid in that process, but it won’t cover everyone who will need it.

Users who opt into the FKAA on-site program will pay the same assessment fee of $5,700 as all other properties, will pay the MSTU taxes, and will them pay the same monthly rate as users of the central system.

For those charges, FKAA will install, operate and maintain the on-site systems.

Areas that are currently not included in the Cudjoe Regional central system include remote areas of all the affected islands, as well as Middle Torch Key and Big Torch Key and No Name Key.

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