County working sewer issues

By Steve Estes

The decision to proceed with building the $130 million to $150 million Cudjoe Regional wastewater system is barely done escaping the lips of Monroe County’s elected leaders and already several issues that will require some “innovative” thought have begun to crop up.

Ed Hohmann, retired deputy from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and owner of a commercial office building on Cudjoe Key, was one of the first to get his assessment fee prepayment notice from the county early last week.

Every property between Lower Sugarloaf and Big Pine Key received initial notices of assessment prior to the July Board of County Commissioners meeting but those notices became moot that day when the commissioners voted to lower the assessment fee, the amount of money property owners will be charged for the privilege to hook into the central system when it’s built, from $5,700 per equivalent dwelling unit to $4,500. The equivalent dwelling unit or EDU is roughly the amount of flow from a typical single-family home.

Hohmann is being charged 1.5 EDUs for his office building, a number he says is unrealistic.

He wants to appeal the charge, however, there is a small hitch with that plan.

The appeal deadline ended July 18.

That was basically an arbitrary date set by the county to meet deadlines to get the assessments on the November tax bills, said County Engineer Kevin Wilson.

“Just because the date on the appeal form says July 18, anyone who believes they have a legitimate appeal should go ahead and file it,” said Wilson. “I don’t believe we’ll turn it away just because the date has passed.”

He gets a resounding back-up in that opinion from County Administrator Roman Gastesi.

“I would certainly hope that we aren’t so rigid in our dealings with our residents that we can’t find a way for them to appeal if they’ve missed the deadline,” said Gastesi. “If we are, then that’s a conversation we need to have with the commissioners.”

The time frame to adjust the EDU charge for the November tax bill has passed, said Wilson, at least for the properties that will be in the inner system areas of Upper Sugarloaf, Cudjoe and Summerland keys.

But those folks can still use a couple of methods to get assessment adjustments.

Wilson said they can put in a separate meter that measures water usage that won’t wind up going down a county pipe, like for irrigation, or they can present historical water flow evidence that disputes the charges. It takes 12 months of readings to determine an adjustment if one is due, but that amount will be credited back to the property owner.

The latter is the method Hohmann plans to use as he has records dating back several years where his commercial water bill was just a few dollars per month more than his home bill, and the latter is assessed at one EDU.

Local residents are concerned that some property owners who fit in the snowbird category may be traveling or in another location when the assessment notices are delivered, making it several months before they receive the notice, well past the current appeal date.

Another issue that is already beginning to creep into public awareness is the eventual time frame for hooking into the pipe when it runs in front of the property. A county ordinance mandates that a property owner hook into the system within 30 days of notice of availability from the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority.

In many cases, that will be unrealistic due to the shifting population nature of the Keys, including the sizeable snowbird population.

Officials are concerned that folks who get the notice while they’re elsewhere will get several months worth of sewer bills having had no chance to put in the lateral.

Once the notice of availability has been issued, said Wilson, FKAA waits one complete billing cycle and then starts billing the base facility charge at least for sewer use whether the property is hooked into the pipe or not.

“It could be as little as 31 days or as much as 59 days before that charge is levied,” said Wilson.

He says that procedure is standard practice for public utilities and not something the county actually controls.

“There is a base facility charge because the system is operational and it takes money for operations and maintenance. There may be no flow charge because the property is using no water,” he added.

Sewer bills will be based on the amount of water used by the property, as it’s assumed that all water will eventually go back down the county’s pipe. The base charge is expected to be about $27 for everyone, with about $10 per 1,000 gallons for usage charges.

“We know things will happen that will delay hook ups,” said Gastesi. “Contractors may not be available, the property owner may not be available.”

“We have to talk about some system to deal with those issues that doesn’t punitively strike out at the property owners trying to do what we require of them,” he said. “Our goal here is compliance, not coercion. We want people to be able to do the right thing.”

The county’s last resort is code enforcement action, but that’s a route Gastesi says he wants to use as little as possible.

“There will be some people who refuse to hook up, and will just continue to pay the bill since they have to anyway,” said Wilson. “It’s those people we have to deal with. The owners who have to wait for a plumber to get enough contracts in the neighborhood to make it cost-effective is something we understand.”

The other issue that Gastesi says he will deal with before the hook ups come available, slated to be 2014 for the inner system areas and 2015 for the outer system areas of Lower Sugarloaf and Ramrod through Big Pine, is the speed of the building department in issuing permits.

“I think we have the right supervisors in place now to find a way to streamline the process so that people aren’t waiting two months for a plumbing permit to hook up a piece of pipe,” said Gastesi. “We will have a definitive system by then. My vision is that when people apply for these permits, they can walk away saying ‘that was easy’ and feel good about the process.”

Now that the reality of central sewers in the Keys is hitting home, many local residents are also looking at how they can pay for the laterals they will have to install at their own expense to get their drain pipe from the house to the street. That cost can range between $2,000 and $6,000 depending on the complexity of the job.

The county has Community Development Block Grant monies currently in the coffers to help low-income county households with the costs of installing laterals and abandoning existing septic systems.

“That’s a finite pot, but we’ll keep looking for that grant money over the next few years and make as much of it as possible available for this purpose,” said Gastesi.

The grant funds are handled on a first come basis and the project basically has to be ready to hook in for consideration.

“If folks believe they’re eligible, they need to apply for the grants. We’ll establish a waiting list, whatever we have to do, to help as many people as we can,” said Gastesi.

There has been mention among community leaders in asking the county to serve as a front agency for short-term loans for property owners who can’t afford the single-shot cost of a lateral installation.

“The county can’t loan the money because that would be spending public funds on private property, and we can’t do that,” said Wilson. “We can’t guarantee loans for the same reason.”

But Wilson said he would put his thinking cap on straight and start talking to local lending institutions about establishing a short-term loan program to amortize lateral costs for strapped homeowners.

Owners will already be paying about $400 per EDU per year for the assessments on their tax bills, along with the additional sewer usage fees.

That could put some folks in dire straits to come up with the money to put in laterals.

“It’s not an impossible program, but we can’t be directly involved,” said Wilson.

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