Utility awaits tax outcome for contracts on sewers

By Steve Estes

Even though preparations for the eventual construction of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater system are moving steadily forward, most officials are hedging their bets until after the November 6 general election.

And that has nothing to do with which political party or local official takes the national, state or local stage.

Instead, it has to do with the highly anticipated decision by the local voters about the extension of a one-cent infrastructure sales tax.

Monroe County is using $20 million in unspent funds from the current tax, a grant from the state of $30 million, and an anticipated revenue of just over $40 million in local hook up fees to pay for most of the anticipated costs of the Cudjoe Regional.

But with an estimate of about $150 million to put that system in the ground, those current revenues fall some $60 million short of paying for the entire system

“That’s why the passage of that tax extension by local voters is so vitally important,” said County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy.

Bid requests for both the regional treatment plant and the inner islands collection system are on the streets right now, according to Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Executive Director Kirk Zuelch.

The inner islands consist of Upper Sugarloaf, Cudjoe and Summerland Keys.

Bids are also on the street for the outer islands collection system, but the FKAA is asking for a design/build contractor for that one. The outer islands consist of Lower Sugarloaf, Ramrod, the Torches and Big Pine Key.

“We will open the treatment plant and inner island bids November 1, and take them to the FKAA board at the November meeting,” said Zuelch.

“We will open the outer island bids in mid-November and ask the board to approve a contractor at the December meeting,” he added.

Zuelch said the project will last two to three years, “So many of you won’t see us in the neighborhoods for two years or more.”

FKAA engineer Tom Walker said the Aqueduct hopes to be able to give the first notices to proceed in January 2013.

“The treatment plant is a two-year project and we can’t have anything ready to accept flow until that is done,” said Walker.

Of course, right now, Zuelch says that the FKAA board won’t agree to any contracts unless the funding for the entire system is in place, or figured out, by that time.

“We can’t sign a contract we don’t have the revenue to fund,” said Zuelch.

The tax question asks voters to extend the existing one-cent sales tax for infrastructure for another 15 years after it expires in 2018.

The county expects to have about $10 to $11 million in usable money yearly from that tax and commissioners have said they will pledge it all to pay off the wastewater project before any gets used for other purposes.

After that, said Murphy, roads and bridges are the top priority.

Walker said that the Cudjoe Regional, unlike other systems the FKAA and county have collaborated on, will be a hybrid system using gravity in densely populated areas and low-pressure grinder pumps in less densely populated areas where they don’t feel it’s economically feasible to use the more expensive gravity systems.

Walker said it will be at least two years before the first notices of availability go out to property owners, and from there they have 30 days to hook into the system.

But that’s a very loose timetable, says County Public Works/Engineering Director Kevin Wilson.

“We understand there are issues with enough qualified plumbers to do the jobs, with enough time for those plumbers to do the jobs, with pulling permits, with coming up with the money,” said Wilson. “To date no county developed system has fined a property owner for not being hooked into the system. We expect some time for that to happen.”

When it comes to laterals, Walker said the FKAA will work with property owners to try and find the most reasonable solution for location of the primary drain to the pipe in the street, and for the location of the low-pressure pumps.

The latter will require a dedicated 220-volt circuit that will carry 30 amps from the home’s breaker box, but will require a much smaller diameter pipe. So property owners with the low-pressure systems will have to give FKAA an easement to check and maintain those systems on private property, but will have generally shorter pipe runs and less depth to go through to reach the street.

But the big question is still the passage of the sales tax to finish paying for the system.

“We hope the bids come in significantly lower,” said Wilson. “But we can’t rely on that.”

And, he says, there really is no plan B right now if the tax doesn’t pass.

The county would have one more shot at passage before the state’s December 2015 deadline hits during the general election in 2014.

“Other than that, the things that have been talked about are higher assessments for the users or higher property taxes for everyone to pay for the final part of the system,” said Wilson.

According to County Commissioner George Neugent, the mandate from the state to upgrade sewer systems in the Keys by 2015 doesn’t go away just because there’s a lack of funding.

“The law says we’ll do it, not that we’ll do it if there’s money identified,” said Neugent.

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