Voters say yes to tax extension

By Steve Estes

When Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority officials open bids for construction of the first two phases of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater system Nov. 15 they can at least be certain that there is a way to pay for the projected $150 million project at completion.

That’s because Monroe County voters Tuesday overwhelmingly supported a 15-year extension of the one-cent infrastructure sales tax.

Voters gave a thumbs up to the tax extension by more than a two-to-one margin, with 68 percent of the voters saying yes.

“It’s definitely a relief,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi, speaking on Wednesday’s Morning Magazine news show on US 1 Radio.

“The community recognized what a great deal the tax is with the visitors paying more than half of it, and decided this was the best way to get the biggest bang for our buck,” he added.

The county is mandated to upgrade wastewater treatment in the Keys by Dec. 31, 2015, and the Cudjoe Regional is the last system in unincorporated Monroe County that needs to get off the drawing board and into the ground.

Officials plan to raise nearly $40 million for the development cost of the system from assessments charged to users of the system. The state kicked in $50 million in grant money, of which Monroe gets $30 million. The other $20 million goes to Islamorada to jump start that system. When the current sales tax runs its course in 2018, the county will have more than $20 million remaining in unspent funds from the current run which will be pledged to the Cudjoe Regional construction.

But that left between $40 million and $60 million unfunded without the tax extension. Had the measure failed at the polls, the only remaining alternative would have been to levy additional property taxes on every owner in the county to make up the difference, or ask the users of the Cudjoe Regional system to foot the bill themselves through additional assessments at a cost of roughly $19,000 per equivalent dwelling unit. An EDU is roughly equal to the average water flow from a typical single-family home.

With the passage of the tax extension, however, Gastesi says officials can now “finalize a funding plan for completing wastewater in the Keys.”

The plan reportedly is to restructure the county’s debt against the sales tax to cover loans already taken to pay for other systems using the new money and free up enough of the current and future flow to pay off any loans needed to complete the Cudjoe Regional system.

FKAA will open the bids for the treatment plant, which is to be located at the transfer station on Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key, and the inner island collection system Nov. 15. The bids had been scheduled to be opened Nov. 1, but the opening was delayed by FKAA officials. The Cudjoe project is broken into three phases; the treatment plant, which will begin construction first, the inner island collection system, which will serve Upper Sugarloaf, Cudjoe and Summerland Keys, and the outer island collection system, which will serve Lower Sugarloaf, Ramrod, the Torches and Big Pine Key.

The outer island system is being bid on a design/build format where the successful bidder will design and build the system under the same contract. About 30 percent of that design work is completed already. Those bids will be opened in the next four weeks.

“We should have the construction under contract by January and complete the promise we made to the Governor when he authorized the $50 million that we’d be ready to break ground by the next Legislative session in March,” said Gastesi.

But the extension of the sales tax does more than finish paying for what has become nearly three-fourths of a billion dollars in wastewater improvements over the last 10 years.

“Now we can finally put in place a priority funding plan for capital projects in the county,” said Gastesi. “We have more than 40 bridges that we maintain, many of which are reaching their useful life span of 50 years or so. We have road work that has been left undone while we spend every available dollar on wastewater. We have facilities in need of repair and upgrade and parks to maintain.”

The Board of County Commissioners, in the resolution placing the sales tax on the ballot, said that any proceeds would first be used for wastewater projects until such time as those projects were paid for, then the money could be used for other capital projects.

The money can’t be used for anything without a shelf life of about five years or more, says County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy.

“It just makes sense to put a revenue stream in place that is paid more than half by our tourists. They use the facilities as much as we do in many cases,” she said.

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