County drops assessments to $4,500

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners Wednesday agreed to lower the wastewater assessment fee for the Cudjoe Regional service area to $4,500 per equivalent dwelling unit.

An EDU is roughly equal to the average water flow for a typical single-family home.

The commission had originally set $5,700 per EDU as the maximum, but met strong opposition from eventual users of the Cudjoe Regional system which will serve every property from Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key with the exception of some of the more remote areas that aren’t financially feasible to hook up such as Middle Torch Key, Big Torch Key, No Name Key, outlying areas of Cudjoe and Summerland Keys and some interior sections of Big Pine Key where density is very low.

Properties that will be hooked into what the county calls the inner system, Upper Sugarloaf through Summerland Key, will see the new assessment on their tax bills in November. Those in the outer system, Lower Sugarloaf and Ramrod through Big Pine, won’t see the assessments until next November.

Those who wish to prepay the assessment may do so at the Monroe County finance office in the Gato Building on Simonton Street in Key West between now and August.

Those who don’t want to pay the whole cost up front, or can’t afford to pay the whole cost up front, need only wait for the tax bill. The assessment will be included on the tax bill, priced to be paid off in yearly installments over 20 years.

Initial assessment notices were mailed to property owners a few weeks ago announcing the $5,700 assessment with a yearly rate of $538.

New notices will be out in the next couple of weeks with the new yearly amount.

“The effect of the commission’s decision will result in a new yearly rate of about $402,” said County Engineer Kevin Wilson.

Property owners will pay principal and interest charges over the 20-year life of the amortization as well as yearly fees to the Monroe County Tax Collector of about 65 cents per EDU. The property appraisers office, which could have taken a three percent cut to certify the tax bill, has announced it will not charge fees.

That helped bring the total down for the yearly assessments, says Wilson.

Not everyone received an assessment for just one EDU.

“If you feel your EDU assessment is high and you have a large use for irrigation, you can ask the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority to install a separate meter for water that won’t enter the sewer system,” said Wilson.

He said that could affect your initial assessment plus your eventual sewer bill. Bills will be based on actual water usage with the assumption that all that water ends up in the waste stream.

He said FKAA needs 12 months of data on water usage to adjust the initial assessment amount, which works now for the outer system users who can install the meters before August and have the 12-month study. It doesn’t work for inner system users who won’t be able to document 12 months of usage before the tax bills arrive in November.

“But if you install the meter, pay the first year and we’ll adjust the assessment in future years,” Wilson said.

The FKAA has announced a base facility charge of just under $27 per month, which users will pay even if they use no water, such as seasonal homeowners who are out of town in the summer months, as well as usage charge of just under $10 per 1,000 gallons.

The county has long planned to pay for the development of the Cudjoe Regional system using one third in monies from hook up fees, one third in monies from the state and the final third from an extension of the one cent infrastructure sales tax.

That leg of the funding stool isn’t yet set in stone, however, as the sales tax extension must be approved by the voters in a referendum in November.

“If the sales tax doesn’t pass, we have a $30 million shortfall to make up,” said Commissioner Heather Carruthers. “That might have some effect on the assessments in future years.”

“We and the tourists have been paying this sales tax for 22 years,” said Mayor David Rice. “It’s not a new tax. It’s an extension of an existing tax.”

The BOCC has agreed that all money collected from the sales tax will go toward paying for the Cudjoe Regional system until it has been fully funded.

After that, the money can have other uses.

“Right now we are about $30 million in arrears in the road and bridge fund which is traditionally funded by gas taxes. We asked people to conserve gas and they conserved gas. We don’t sell as many gallons as we used to and our gas tax revenue has dropped,” said Rice. “This sales tax can help make up some of that shortfall in roads and bridges after the sewers are paid for.”

According to FKAA Engineer Tom Walker, the Aqueduct plans to have a contract awarded for the inner system by December this year.

“About 30 months after that, the system will be complete,” he said.

FKAA plans to have the outer areas under a design/build contract by the first of 2013 and “Should make the deadline of December 31, 2015 for completion,” said Walker.

For the last year or so, county and FKAA officials have said they couldn’t make the December 2015 deadline and have thought about asking for another extension from the state based on a good-faith effort in progressing toward completion.

Property owners who own lots where they plan to build sometime after the next two years won’t get the option to pay the hook up fee on an amortized schedule, said Wilson.

“We are not assessing vacant properties,” he said. “If you build later you will pay the assessment in full when you pick up the permit.”

The county also has kept in place its ordinance mandating that property owners hook into the central system within 30 days of notice that the pipe in the street is ready, although some attendees at Wednesday’s meeting asked the commission to put something in place to protect those who have had to install advanced treatment on-site systems in the last few years under state Department of Health rules and now will be forced to abandon those systems and pay for hook up into the central system when the pipes arrive.

Wilson said the county is seeking state and federal grant money to aid property owners who fall within certain income guidelines in installing the laterals that will be needed to connect the house drain to the pipe in the street.

Estimates for that work have been between $2,000 and $6,000 depending on the length of pipe that needs to be run and the configuration of that pipe. Homeowners will need a county permit for that work, either as an owner/builder or by hiring a contractor.

Some members of the audience beseeched County Administrator Roman Gastesi to have his building department work on a streamlined plan to issue those permits.

“There will also be a permit needed from the health department to abandon the existing system,” said Wilson.

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