Sewer officials will meet with businesses

By Steve Estes

Officials from Monroe County and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority have agreed to meet with local business owners in the next couple of weeks to try and iron out issues the business folks have with wastewater assessments for the eventual development of the Cudjoe Regional service system.

The FKAA met with local residents Wednesday evening at the Big Pine Methodist Church and after a brief presentation on the current status of the system, were bombarded with criticism from area business owners about the system development fee program.

The fee is being charged by the county to pay for approximately one third of the construction costs associated with the Cudjoe Regional, the entire cost of which is currently estimated at $150 million.

Property assessments for commercial usage are based on the average water flow from a typical single-family residence. According to County Engineering Director Kevin Wilson, that usage is about 167 gallons per day for a single-family home.

To determine commercial assessments, managers picked the highest usage for three consecutive months, averaged that and divided it by the daily residential flow to establish a commercial assessment.

In some local cases, that assessment comes in at upwards of $200,000.

And that will put a lot of properties out of business, claims Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce President Steve Miller.

“The commercial assessments are outrageous,” Miller said. “There are plenty of businesses in the area that don’t flush all that water they use down the drain.”

Miller suggested that wastewater officials devise a formula that allows businesses to determine how much of their water usage actually goes back into a drain pipe and how much is used for irrigation, pools, serving drinks to customers, or manufacturing ice for patrons.

“Water used to make ice never goes back into the drain,” he said. “The water used in soda fountains never goes back into the drain. We could simply use a formula where we know how much water is mixed with syrup to make fountain drinks, and you multiply that by the number of cases of syrup you use, and that comes off the water flow, thereby decreasing the assessment.”

Jay Marzella, owner of Parmer’s Resort on Little Torch Key, said that the assessments, along with the costs for laterals and septic tank abandonment, “will put me out of business.”

Marzella has seven lots that serve his hotel, and each lot has a separate septic tank.

“I have to abandon seven septic tanks. Add that to the cost of the laterals that will fall on me, and the $200,000 in assessments, and there are 15 families that depend on that hotel to put food on the table that won’t be able to do that anymore.”

Wilson said there is a process whereby commercial entities can ask for a separate meter to be installed to gauge how much of the water usage doesn’t make it back into a drain pipe.

Marzella’s complaint is that he would have to revamp the plumbing on the entire property, costing more tens of thousands of dollars, to hook all those different water lines into a separate meter.

It was Marzella’s situation, and the overwhelming support of it from the rest of the business community at the meeting that got Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Executive Director Kirk Zuelch to agree to a separate meeting in the near future to address commercial owner’s concerns.

Miller said the chamber was also concerned about the limited number of property owners who have been forced by state statute to replace existing septic systems with an on-site system that is compliant with 2015 technology demands mandated by the state.

“These people have paid $20,000 for a 2015-compliant system, and now they have to abandon it and pay another $8,000 or more to hook into the central system,” said Miller. “There has to be a way the county commission can rewrite the ordinance that requires that to allow those systems to run their course and then hook in.”

Once notified of availability of service, property owners have 30 days to hook into the pipe in front of their property or risk code action.

In reality, that’s much longer, says Wilson because the county isn’t interested in taking people to court because they can’t get a plumber on time, or because they get held up in permitting, or because they get the notice while living at their other home in the frigid north.

According to Wilson, Cudjoe service area residents, which incorporates everyone from Lowe Sugarloaf Key to Big Pine, will pay the $4,500 assessment charge per house, and will also have to pay between $3,000 and $6,000 to abandon septic tanks and run laterals to the street. They will also have to pay for plumbing permits and inspections.

The assessment fees can be paid up front to save interest and fees, or can be amortized over 20 years on the property tax bill. The first year of that amortization will be $401 per year for residents in the inner island system and $402 for residents in the outer islands system.

The inner islands are Upper Sugarloaf, Cudjoe and Summerland. Bids for those systems are already on the street, says Zuelch, and should be ready for FKAA board action by November.

The outer islands of Lower Sugarloaf and Ramrod through Big Pine will be done as a design/build bid and should be on the streets by early October with a December opening date. The treatment plant, located on Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key, is also already out to bid.

Other than property assessments, the county also plans to use about $20 million it has in excess from the existing infrastructure sales tax revenue, a $30 million state grant, and the rest from a proposed extension of the sales tax.

That tax, which will net the county about $10 million per year in usable dollars, is scheduled to expire in 2018. Voters will have to approve the extension of that one-cent tax, which they have already been paying for more than two decades, at the November general election.

“That is what determined the timing of the bidding process,” said Zuelch. “If that tax doesn’t pass, the remainder of the funding isn’t assured and it would make no sense to let a $150 million project without some idea how to pay for the last part of it.”

If the tax fails, said Wilson, right now there is no plan B to pay for the remainder of the system.

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