Not all news good on Cudjoe sewers

By Steve Estes

There was good, decent, and bad news Wednesday night for property owners who will soon be faced with the specter of shelling out as much as $10,000 to hook into the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System.

The good news included:

The system development fee assessment was lowered by the Board of County Commissioners to $4,500 per equivalent dwelling unit. An EDU is roughly the average flow from a typical single-family home. The county had started with a $5,700 assessment, higher than any other system in unincorporated Monroe County outside an independent district such as Key Largo. The BOCC was able to drop that fee, however, when county financial staffers finished tallying up spent and promised money from the county’s infrastructure sales fund, the primary source of sewer funding here for the last 10 years.

When the one cent sales tax finishes its run in 2018, there will be just over $20 million left in the till that can be put against the Cudjoe Regional. The bad news portion of that good news, however, is that the tax is due to sunset in 2018 and the county needs voter approval to extend it. That tax is being counted on to pay for about half of the projected cost of the Cudjoe Regional system. The system will serve some 7,400 properties with about 8,800 EDUs from Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key.

“If the voters extend that tax, it will benefit you tremendously,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi, speaking to more than 120 attendees at the August Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce General Membership meeting. “That tax will pay for over half of the cost of your system.”

“It’s very important to the Cudjoe Regional that the cash continue to flow. It’s a tax you already pay so it’s not an additional tax, and our visitors pay more than half of the total.”

The good news also included:

The state has agreed to hand over $30 million of a promised $200 million, with an extra $20 million to Islamorada, to help fund the system, a windfall that makes it possible to kick start the system, says Gastesi.

“Hopefully we get the rest of the money, of which the county will get $72 million, and we can use that to pay for shovel-ready projects and not have to borrow money to pay for the system,” said Gastesi.

Other good news included:

Officials anticipate that the actual bids to construct the project will come in 10 to 15 percent lower than the current $150 million estimate, making the project cheaper. That savings won’t be passed along to the property owners, however, because the $4,500 assessment and the money they will need to install laterals to get from the house drain to the street will still have to be spent.

It will benefit the sales tax revenues on the back end because less of the sales tax money will have to be used to fund later portions of the construction.

Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said that Cudjoe Regional users also won’t have to pay an extra capital component on their monthly user fees for the system because, “The financing is such that we won’t have to borrow extra money and pass that along to the rate payer.”

“We will be able to restructure existing debt against the sales tax revenues and avoid bridge loans to complete the system,” said County Engineer Kevin Wilson.

Based on numbers given Wednesday night, the average single-family home should be facing a $67 per month sewer bill when the system is completed. That will be on top of the regular water bill. Sewer bills will be based on water usage at the property.

The decent news included:

Design of the first two phases of the project, the largest the county has yet undertaken, is complete.

Phase One is the construction of the central treatment plant at the landfill site on Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key. Bids for that construction should be on the street by the end of the month, said Zuelch.

Phase Two is the construction of the inner island collection system which will cover Upper Sugarloaf, Cudjoe and Summerland Key. Zuelch said bids for that project should also be ready to hit the streets later this month.

Both those projects should have a qualified bidder by late October and be ready for approval by the FKAA board in November, said Zuelch.

Phase Three is the construction of the outer island system, which covers Lower Sugarloaf, Ramrod Key, the Torches and Big Pine Key.

That system is being done on a design/build criteria and Zuelch said the FKAA board Wednesday qualified six bidders for the job. Bids for that phase of the project are due on the streets by the end of September with opening in December and approval by the FKAA board in January 2013.

Zuelch also said that FKAA representatives plan to meet with civic groups and homeowners associations beginning in the next 30 days to outline plans for the systems so that folks who couldn’t find a seat Wednesday evening can get first-hand information.

“One of things we will bring to those meetings is the actual system designs so you can see what it is we plan to do in front of your house,” said Zuelch.

The Cudjoe Regional will be a hybrid system, he said. “Most of the system will be gravity flow, but there will be some vacuum portions and even some low-pressure grinder pumps for the more remote, less densely populated areas.”

“We will work with you to decide which end of your lot is the best for you to install the lateral,” he said. “We want to make this as easy as possible for you.”

Zuelch said he felt confident the system could be complete by the state’s mandated December 2015 deadline.

The bad news included:

Neither county officials nor Zuelch could tell property owners that they could devise some method to allow owners to finance laterals if they couldn’t afford the up-front costs of $3,000 to $6,000.

“There are people who aren’t going to be able to afford to put out that kind of money at any point,” said Steve Miller, chamber president. “This is a working class community. With the extra money for assessments and the cost for laterals, they won’t be able to make it.”

Zuelch said there is some grant money available to help low-income households with lateral costs, but it’s a finite pot, “And the problem is that the qualifying guidelines are so low that many people don’t qualify for the grants.”

The bad news also included:

Users in the inner island system have already missed the opportunity to appeal an EDU assessment, and have only until Aug. 31 to prepay the assessment before it will be amortized over a 20-year period on the property tax bil.

“We won’t turn away an appeal,” said Wilson. “File it if you need to. We’ll deal with it.”

The appeals pertain primarily to commercial properties where multiple EDUs have been assessed.

Zuelch also told the crowd that right now there is no way for someone who has already gone to the expense of installing a 2015 compliant on-site septic system to avoid abandoning that system and hooking into the central system when it appears in the street.

The state law mandating the upgrade of sewers in Monroe County says that central is the preferred method and a county ordinance requires that residents hook in within 30 days of notice of availability.

“If there is some way we can tweak the state statute, we will work to do that. If we can work within the system to help through the county ordinance, we’ll try that, too,” said Gastesi.

Editor’s Note: More on the meeting will appear in next week’s News-Barometer

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