Gastesi: Innovative solutions needed on assessments

By Steve Estes

The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority Board was expected to approve contracts Wednesday that will get the Cudjoe Regional wastewater system started after years of delays.

The board was expected to accept a bid of $21.8 million to build the treatment plant at the landfill station on Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key and a bid of $35.5 million to construct the collection system for the inner islands of Upper Sugarloaf, Cudjoe Key and Summerland Key.

That step brings the system one more closer to actually being able to hook users into the system, and further shortens the window future users have to correct what many feel are issues with the county’s hook up assessments.

Most of those issues have been raised by commercial property owners, many of whom feel the assessments are out of line.

Commercial assessments were based on the amount of water flow at the business. Officials claim that the average water flow for a single family residential unit is 167 gallons per day. Commercial assessments were based on that number as a base multiplied by the increment of increase. For instance, a business that uses 1,670 gallons per day was assessed for 10 EDUs (equivalent dwelling units). With the county adopting a $4,500 per EDU assessment to help finance the estimated $150 million system, that business would pay $45,000 for its hook up fees.

In the case of commercial entities that use a lot of water, such as lodgings and high-volume restaurants or fish markets and bait shops, the assessment was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

County Administrator Roman Gastesi says the staff is well aware that some of the assessment amounts could be more than a small business can handle.

“We have to find some way to work with these people and make it so our assessment fees don’t drive them out of business,” said Gastesi.

For the businesses located in the inner island system phase, county staff is right now working on a couple methods of adjusting the assessments if they’re appealed.

Those owners have been urged to go ahead and pay the assessments based on a 20-year amortization on the property tax bill, about $401 per year per EDU. They can then install a separate water meter that measures the flow of water that won’t wind up down a drain pipe, such as ice machines, irrigation, pools and such. After nine months to a year of readings from the two meters, staff will adjust the assessment if warranted and either credit future year payments or refund existing payments.

Staff is also researching records to see if some of the assessments were based on a wayward meter reading over a short period of time.

For instance, Ed Hohmann owns a commercial office building on Cudjoe Key. One of his tenants installed a washing machine, which drove the water usage up for a few months before he caught on and got rid of the tenant. Because commercial assessments were based on the highest three months, he got tagged for an extra EDU in assessment. By reviewing the bills prior and since, he got an adjustment back down to a single EDU in assessment fee.

“I have already directed staff to be innovative, think outside the box, find a way to help these people if we can,” said Gastesi.

Neither the county nor FKAA have yet adopted a solid policy for negotiating with commercial owners who might lose their businesses if the assessment remains as high as it is today.

The Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District actually agreed in some instances to halve the assessment and add some usage charge where assessments would have driven the business under.

Gastesi says they are also looking at ways to establish a formula for water that is used that can never go back down the drain, such as ice machines.

“We know how much water the machine uses, or how much water it takes to fill a fountain cup of soda. These are things we have to look at, be innovative,” he said.

“We can’t afford to have a bunch of empty businesses sitting in the county. Not only would that kill our job market, but it would become a tax burden rather than a help,” he said.

Businesses in the outer island area of Lower Sugarloaf Key, Ramrod Key, the Torch Keys and Big Pine were urged to install separate meters in August so the county would have a year to look at the resulting data and make adjustments. Assessments for the outer island area aren’t due until August of 2013.

“Our goal is not to be Draconian,” said Gastesi. “Our goal is to be able to build a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment system with as little pain as possible to our business community.”

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