Business owners still irked about sewers

By Steve Estes

Business owners included in the proposed Cudjoe Regional wastewater system met with county and Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority officials last week and came away with mixed feelings about the impending costs of the system on commercial properties.

All residential units within the proposed service area, which includes everything from Lower Sugarloaf to Big Pine Key, are being assessed one equivalent dwelling unit, defined as the average water flow for a single-family home.

It matters not whether the home is a one bathroom model or a six bathroom model. For each EDU, the county is assessing a system development fee of $4,500. That money is supposed to pay for about one third of the final cost of the 8,800-EDU system.

To calculate commercial hook up assessments, county officials used the average daily water flow of the business and divided that by the average daily flow of a typical single-family home, or about 167 gallons per day. The resulting number was the assessment charge.

And in some cases, the proposed assessment was more than $300,000 for a single business to hook into the proposed system once pipes are available.

And many of the business owners felt the assessments were unfair.

“A lot of the water used by businesses will never wind up in the sewer system,” said Steve Miller, president of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce. “Commercial entities use water for irrigation that will never see the sewer system. Restaurants use water for ice and cooking and fountain drinks that will never see the sewer system. Commercial ice machines don’t dump water back into a drain pipe. Water used in pools never makes it back into the drain pipes. Yet you want to assess businesses for all the water they use.”

According to County Engineering Director Kevin Wilson, business owners do have ways to appeal the initial assessments, although those located in the inner island service area, Upper Sugarloaf through Summerland, won’t be able to take advantage of that until next year.

Inner island users had until August to pay their assessments in full or have them tacked onto the yearly tax bill amortized over 20 years.

Outer island users, Lower Sugarloaf and Ramrod through Big Pine, will have until next August to pay the assessment in full or have them tacked onto the yearly tax bill.

The estimated yearly cost for inner island users is $401 while outer island users are expected to pay $402 yearly. The amortization is based on a five percent interest rate, but that can be adjusted yearly depending on the actual rate at which the money is borrowed against the assessment fees, says Wilson.

That percentage rate is “outrageous,” says Julie O’Callaghan, manager of the Old Wooden Bridge Fish Camp on Bogie Road on Big Pine Key.

“The county can find cheaper money, and if they can’t, maybe the business owners should band together and borrow private money at a better rate,” she said.

O’Callaghan said she’s OK with the way the county calculated the commercial assessments, but not with the assessments.

“We have irrigation, ice machines, fish-cleaning tables, a pool; all things that use water but don’t put it back into a drain,” she said.

To get the county to change the assessment number, however, O’Callaghan says she has to spend several thousands dollars up front for what may be an uncertain return on the recalculation of her assessment charges.

To appeal a commercial assessment, owners must apply to the FKAA for a separate water meter that is then hooked into any piping feeding water supplies that won’t return to the sewer system.

“The meter is $1,000, then you have to have a certified plumber to install a backflow preventer and get it inspected by the FKAA,” said Jay Marzella, owner of the 45-unit Parmer’s Resort on Little Torch Key. “That’s extra money.”

Once the meter is installed, commercial properties have to re-run all their piping with the necessary permits.

“I’d have to dig up the majority of my five acres to re-run pipes,” said Marzella.

His solution for the appeal period…water hoses.

“I don’t have to pay thousands, hire a contractor for thousands more (commercial properties cannot apply for owner-builder permits) pay an engineer to do drawings, if I just run a water hose to everything for the appeal period,” said Marzella.

He said the assessment system is still unfair to commercial property owners.

“I have rooms that have been vacant the better part of the last few years. My toilets probably don’t get flushed anymore than the average house, so why do I have to pay an assessment 15 times higher than a McMansion with eight bathrooms?” he asked.

FKAA officials say that the assessments were handled by a county consultant based on the same parameters used for other systems developed by the two agencies.

Marzella gets a few months to make the corrections, unlike those in the inner island systems who were told to pay the first year at least and then install the needed items to appeal the EDU assessments.

According to Wilson, once the appeal period, generally 12 months, has run its course, the county will make assessment adjustments in succeeding years.

O’Callaghan said she still hasn’t been able to get an answer from county officials on whether she can run all her drain pipes to one central pipe for hook up into the central system or whether she has to hook each of her 14 units in separately.

“So I’m doing the research now to see which way is least expensive for me when the pipe does run,” she said.

Another issue commercial owners have been upset with is the setting of a hook up fee before the final cost of the project is known.

O’Callaghan says that if the system comes in $20 or $30 million under estimate, the assessments should be lowered.

That won’t happen, says Wilson, because the amount has already been set on par with what was paid by other recent systems in the county.

Wilson says that inner island users will have pipes available for hook up beginning late 2014 and outer island users will have pipes available for hook up beginning late 2015.

FKAA, the contract overseer, plans to open bids for the treatment plant and the inner island collection system next week, and design/build proposals for the outer island collection system in December.

The FKAA board should have all the contracts awarded by January 2013 and shovels should start turning dirt in January or February.

The treatment plant is a two-year project located at the landfill site on Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key.

FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said last week that if the bids for the system do come in significantly lower that projected, the FKAA board might decide to negotiate with the low bidders to see how far they can reach with central pipes into the “cold spot” areas where central lines are not now slated to run.

“The central system is the best way for us to accomplish the goal,” said Zuelch. “If we can reach more units efficiently and stay under the original estimate, that would make sense.”

Sense or not, County Administrator Roman Gastesi said that he would not suggest to the Board of County Commissioners that they extend the central system beyond its current borders.

He said there would be language in the state statute that governs the Keys’ mandate for upgrading wastewater that would have to be changed because it references the adopted wastewater master plan from 2009, and the BOCC would have to change the adopted master plan.

“If the bids come in lower, we hope to pass that savings on to the taxpayer and rate payer,” said Gastesi. “The cold spots will remain cold spots.”

Cold spot areas are those that will use on-site systems, and there are property owners that have relied on their inclusion in the cold spot areas to upgrade systems already to state compliance levels.

“I would think we’d have some legal issues if we put a pipe in front of their house at this late stage,” said Gastesi. “They have relied on published information to make a significant investment.”

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