Commercial assessments “obnoxious”

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners Wednesday did not act on a change with its consultant that’s currently handling the issuance of wastewater hook up notices for the proposed Cudjoe Regional Wastewater system for handling appeals of asessments.

And that leaves some commercial property owners wondering how they go about getting to talk to someone about the recent assessment notices they received.

For instance, Jay Marzella, owner of Parmer’s Resort on Little Torch Key, got notice last week that his 45-unit hotel was to be charged $286,000 for the privilege of hooking into the planned central sewer system when it comes past his waterfront property.

That estimate will drop after the BOCC also Wednesday approved lowering the hook up fees from $5,700 per equivalent dwelling unit to $4,500 per EDU for users of the Cudjoe Regional system, saving Marzella about $60,000 off the original estimate. An EDU is roughly equivalent to the normal water usage of a typical single-family residence.

But that might still be problematic for a small operation such as his, he said.

Marzella’s assessment is roughly 1.1 EDUs per room, rooms that aren’t at 100 percent occupancy in any year. That also includes water the resort uses for irrigation and for evaporation replacement in the facility’s swimming pool.

Proposed EDUs have been based on historical water flow using the highest three months of usage of the preceding three years for commercial properties.

“We’ve had several Hurricane Wilma induced leaks in our water supply on our side of the meter in the last few years, one that dropped a unit’s usage from 80,000 gallons to 5,000 gallons. If they used those months, then I believe we have an issue,” said Marzella.

He said he has filed an appeal of the EDU calculation for his facility, but has been unable to determine as yet who will hear that appeal.

“An assessment that size, even if I amortize over the 20 years, might well put us out of business,” said Marzella. “I hope we have a chance to talk to a real person about this before we get the first bill.”

If a property owner chooses to use the amortization method and pay over 20 years on the property tax bill, there is a chance the assessment would end before the prescribed period as the county puts excess money from the anticipated extension of the infrastructure sales tax toward debt service.

Lanny Gardner, co-owner of one of the larger restaurant establishments in the Lower Keys, Boondocks Grille and Drafthouse on Ramrod Key, said he got one whale of a shock when he opened his assessment letter last week.

“The hook up charge was close to $400,000. That’s pretty obnoxious for a business our size,” said Gardner.

Much of Gardner’s water usage goes toward irrigation on his property and to supply the water for the facility’s mini-golf course, all water that never reaches the sewer system.

“There’s talk that we can drop a new meter to take that water out of the system for the sewer charge. If I can’t do something like that, a charge that big would put us out of business. I don’t know any small business in the Lower Keys that can absorb that kind of a fee and survive.”

According to County Engineer Kevin Wilson, property owners who dispute the usage amounts because they use significant amounts of water for irrigation or ancillary uses that never go down a waste pipe will have some time to get that straightened out if they’re part of the outer system area.

The Cudjoe Regional service area is broken down into two phases for the collection systems, the inner area which comprises Upper Sugarloaf Key, Cudjoe Key and Summerland Key. The assessment bills for those properties will go out with the 2013 tax bills in November. The outer area, which is comprised of Lower Sugarloaf, Ramrod Key, the Torch Keys and Big Pine Key, will get assessment bills on the tax bill starting in November 2013 for the 2014 tax year.

Wilson said that those in the outer system will be able to put a separate meter in soon and have a year to recalculate the water flow that will actually go down the waste pipe, thereby changing the actual assessment amount.

The county has determined that it will lose about five percent of the proposed EDUs, right now at 8,800, prior to the implementation of the system, many from situations such as these.

But there are other businesses out there have similar, yet different issues.

Melodye Reger, owner of The Wharf restaurant and seafood on Summerland Key, said she is being charged for 9.5 EDUs, much of which goes into her commercial ice machines. She sells that ice to commercial fishermen and over the retail counter, and the water never hits the drain pipe.

But she also has an added problem.

When she took over the business, she was forced to upgrade her on-site package treatment plant to current standards at a cost near $100,000.

“Now they want me to spend another $64,000 to hook into the central system and abandon the system I have that works just fine,” said Reger.

She said she plans to file an appeal on the assessment charges and if she has to put in a separate meter, she will, but “it all adds to the costs to my customers to keep the business operational.”

For those commercial businesses in the inner region, Wilson suggests that they go ahead and pay the initial year’s assessment, because the time frame is too short between now and November to get a 12-month average, put the meter in and then get an adjustment from future year’s assessments after a year of study.

“We will constantly monitor the assessment amounts, and may have to adjust them yearly to make sure things are fair across the board,” said Wilson.

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