Chamber wants advisory group for wastewater

By Steve Estes

The Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors has what it believes are some serious questions for county officials regarding the upcoming Cudjoe Regional wastewater system project.

And not only does the board want some answers, but it wants to point out some what it thinks are potentially devastating economic issues.

The board tells the county commissioners that it believes the commercial assessments being levied against business in the affected service area, Lower Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine Key, will cripple the local economy. It disagrees with using residential flow rates as a basis for assessing commercial properties.

“Virtually all small businesses in the Cudjoe Regional system are locally owned, with assessments that in many cases actually cause their demise, even with the proposed installment plan, with irreparable damage done to the entire community and the county.

Many commercial establishments within the Cudjoe Regional service area got treated to a shock when they received initial assessment estimates.

The county has set $4,500 per equivalent dwelling unit as a base assessment. That EDU is based on a standard single-family home residential water usage. Using that standard rate, commercial entities were assessed a factor of that residential usage based on water usage above the norm for residential units.

For some facilities, that meant system development fees of upwards of $300,000 before the first pipe goes in the ground or the first monthly bill is printed.

The chamber board suggests that the county work with local business owners to find a more palatable financing solution than the current proposal that will help owners keep their doors open and keep jobs here.

All eventual users of the Cudjoe Regional, estimated to be between 8,500 and 8,800, can finance the assessment fee over 20 years on the tax bill, but the county estimates a five percent interest rate after it borrows the money from the state, and an initial yearly payback of $402 per EDU, again a number which could make yearly payments well above the $20,000 range for some high users.

The chamber board also has an issue with the county’s stance on paying for private laterals to get the property drains to the street.

“An insufficient amount of grants, savings and cash flow available for paying the required lateral hook up costs which cannot be financed on our tax bill,” makes for an untenable situation that could deprive the business community of its customers.

“The working class community which largely makes up the Cudjoe Regional sewer system will, in many cases, be unable to pay for the lateral hook up costs and consequently will be forced out of the community (again) with irreparable damage to the entire community and the county.”

The chamber board suggests that the county and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, which will be tasked with operating and maintaining the system, work to find some equitable financing solution, either through public/private partnerships or through financial contacts, that allow lower income folks to stretch the costs out over some time and not break the home bank.

“The Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce applauds the county and FKAA’s efforts to meet the statutory mandates and improve our waters which are a precious resource and the heart of our economy….the….issues must be resolved to achieve this goal so that compliance is not at the expense of economic recovery.”

The chamber board suggests that FKAA and the county form a citizen coalition group of civic leaders and governmental representatives to discuss these issues and work toward mutually palatable solutions.

County officials have said that they are aware of these issues, but people in all other areas have faced the same ones, and in some cases businesses were driven under by the costs and residents did move out rather than pay the lateral fees.

They have also said that the county can’t use public money to enhance private property, and neither can it serve as a lending institution.

FKAA officials said they are unable to facilitate lending under their mandates and did not say if they would be willing to try and partner with lending institutions to establish a program for lower income homeowners to alleviate the up front costs of installing sewer laterals.

County Engineer Kevin Wilson said that he didn’t see any way the county or FKAA could carry out such a program, but he wasn’t beyond trying to get some local lending institutions interested in a low-rate, short-term financing program for lateral installation.

The first of the pipes that should be ready for residential hook up might be available in mid-2014.

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