Work on that assessment number

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners is preparing to approve a $5,700 per equivalent dwelling unit wastewater assessment for residents and businesses in the proposed Cudjoe Regional service area.

That will be the highest assessment yet levied on any wastewater customer by the BOCC in unincorporated Monroe County. Plans call for 8,800 EDUs, or a rate of flow roughly equal to a typical single-family home, to be hooked into the system initially with a capacity of about 10,000 EDUs.

With the assessments, the county hopes to raise just over $50 million from the folks who will be using the system full time.

Estimates from a year or more ago say that it will cost about $156 million to build the Cudjoe Regional, a system slated to serve everyone between Lower Sugarloaf Key and Big Pine Key. Officials are looking for the residents to pay a third of that in hook up fees.

But news from the local level now is that the system may well cost less than that in a depressed economy where contractors are hungry for work.

Throughout the years-long discussions of upgrading the Keys’ sewer systems to advanced wastewater treatment standards, the buzz word for our elected officials has been “equitable.”

At every step, staff and officials from the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority have been asked to build a program that is “equitable” for everyone who will eventually use the systems.

So apparently the difference between equitable for county property owners who were first in line and county property owners who were last in line is $3,000.

Those who were first in line, including the super-affluent community of Shark Key, a gated private community that wasn’t even on the county’s service plan initially, were asked to pony up $2,700 for hook up fees. Those last in line, the workforce communities of Little Torch and Big Pine Key, as well as the other communities in the Cudjoe Regional service area, are going to be asked to pony up $5,700.

That might mean “equitable” in someone’s vocabulary.

There are a couple of things going on right now that urge us to ask the BOCC to wait just a little while before it sets a final assessment fee.

If indeed the construction estimates do actually come in $20 million cheaper, as has been projected recently, then $51 million of the total from property owner hook up fees seems to us to be just a little bit excessive. If those bids, which we are told should be locked in by FKAA in late August, do come in substantially cheaper, then the assessment fee should be lowered correspondingly.

That information won’t be fully available until later this summer, but still in time for the assessment to be added to the November tax bills.

County financial wizards are currently going through a reconciliation on the 304 fund, the fund from which sewer monies are drawn, to determine how much money is left after paying out more than $75 million in money for sewers for other areas, with the bills not yet done.

Should that balance be significantly more than we believe, then the assessments could be lowered to match those paid by the last system to go in the ground, Big Coppitt—a fee of $4,500.

The county is relying on the voter to approve an extension of the one-cent infrastructure sales tax in November to continue funding the Cudjoe Regional without the full cost being borne by the property owners there.

All the other areas in the county have gotten large chunks of money from that fund to kick-start, sometimes fully fund, those systems. It would simply be a nice neighborly gesture to give back what other areas have already received.

And if the county extends that tax for 15 years, that would more than pay full freight for the Cudjoe Regional, then be tossed at the systems with outstanding debt to lower the bills there.

That’s equitable.

And to make it really equitable, if the folks in the Cudjoe Regional service area are to pay $5,700 for hook up fees, the county needs to bill the rest of unincorporated Monroe County the difference between that and the amount they paid.

That would probably eliminate large amounts of debt on those systems, or eliminate the need to go into debt on Cudjoe Regional.

We wish that the county could find a way to make things truly equitable, with every property paying the same assessments, the same Municipal Services Taxing Unit amounts, and finally the same bills.

We think they can. It just takes a little thought.

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