Administrator seeks innovation when dealing with on-site issues

By Steve Estes

County Administrator Roman Gastesi says that any answer that includes “because that’s the way it is” is not the answer he expects.

He was speaking about an issue unique to a small number of future users of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System.

During the decade-long run-up to getting to the point of nearly being ready to put actual pipes in the ground for the county’s largest system to date, there were people who had to replace, repair or install, on-site systems that were compliant with the state’s mandated treatment technology. And that, even though most were fully aware that within five years, a central collection system would have to be in the ground to meet state demands.

And the average cost of those compliant systems was between $18,000 and $25,000 depending on the size needed to service the home.

Former State Rep. Ken Sorenson sponsored a measure a decade ago that allowed current homeowners whose systems failed or needed repairs to either repair that system, or install an interim system that was much cheaper if they were in an area that would eventually be served by a central collection system.

That compassion expired, however, and was never renewed by the State Legislature. By the time of expiration, every central system in the unincorporated areas of Monroe County had put shovels in the ground except the Cudjoe Regional, And because no dirt had been moved for that system, estimated to serve about 8,800 equivalent dwelling units (roughly equal to the daily water flow from a typical single-family home), systems failures, even for simple procedures like clogged leach lines, required a new system be installed that met the state’s upgraded treatment standards for 2010.

Those standards for stand-alone units are lower than for the overall central collection system being installed in the near future, but the state was fine with systems that achieved best available technology.

County officials are unsure of the number of property owners affected, but estimates put it at more than 50.

That number doesn’t include homes that have been built in the last three years after the exemption expired and were required to install a BAT system regardless of their location in or out of an area destined for central systems. Prior to that, homes could put in an interim system if they were eventually to be hooked into the central lines.

“We know those folks are out there,” said Gastesi. “And we have to find some way to work with them. It’s not good enough to just say ‘do it’ unless we have exhausted our options to work with them.”

Gastesi said staff is cognizant of the money spent by the affected property owners recently to install compliant systems, and the additional money that will need to be spent to connect to the central system in two or three years.

“After we factor in the initial cost of the compliant system, the hook up fee, the cost to install laterals and the abandonment of a perfectly good system, these folks are suddenly looking at $35,000 to flush the toilet,” said Gastesi. “That’s a lot to pay for that privilege.”

He says he has told staff members involved in the ongoing development of the central systems to “try and work with people. Be innovative. There’s a solution out there, we just haven’t found it yet. But we have to keep looking.”

Part of the problem stems from the timing for hook up assessments. Everyone slated to be on the Cudjoe Regional will begin paying the $4,500 per EDU fee by next year’s tax bill if they don’t pay up front.

A state law requires that property owners hook into the pipe within a year of being notified the line is in the street in front of the property. A county ordinance requires that hook up be done within 30 days of notification, although Gastesi admits the latter is highly “unlikely.”

“There aren’t enough plumbers to finish everyone in 30 days from notice,” he said.

So the way rules stand now, a property owner in the outer island area of Lower Sugarloaf Key, Ramrod Key, the Torch Keys and Big Pine Key, might be able to hold out until sometime in 2017 before anyone takes notice.

But they will have been paying the assessments. They will also have been paying the base monthly charge for sewer service from the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority from 30 to 60 days after notification.

The utility begins billing users on the first cycle following notice of availability whether the property owner has hooked up or not. That base charge is approximately $27 monthly.

So if the county finds some way to “be more compassionate with people caught in this situation,” says Gastesi, officials will still have to work out getting the FKAA on board with a solution.

The county has to pay for building the system. It will be operated and maintained by FKAA once the pipes are in the ground, so any solution to this issue that involves delaying payments or fees will have to get the approval of the FKAA board.

“The first thing we have to do is determine the true impact of this problem. If we’re talking 50 homes, that’s a small percentage of the overall cost factor and won’t make or break the economics of scale,” he said.

He said staff is also looking at ways to possibly reuse systems that have been put in the ground recently by moving them to a cold-spot property where central lines will not be installed.

If the county simply turns the other way until the last possible moment, anyone caught in this dilemma could possibly stretch out hook up until sometime in early 2017. Connections in the outer islands won’t be available until mid- to late-2015, so although pipes might be in the ground, the county won’t meet the hook up mandate set for Dec. 31, 2015. Using the one-year statute, a property notified in late 2015 might stretch to 2017, but that still leaves them with a well-functioning on-site system that’s less than 10 years old on a 25-year expected life span.

The county might also have to ask the state for some modifications to the statute requiring one year to allow compliant systems to run their course before hook up.

The last issue is that those who might get a waievr to hook in would have to follow what will be county rules at that time to pay the assessment fee in full. Once the assessment period has passed in 2013 for the last of the outer islands, any new homes will have to pay the $4,500 assessment as part of the permit fees to build the house if that house is inside the central collection system.

Presumably, any homes waivered now will also face the same single-pay costs, said Gastesi.

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