The world continued, but some Monroe issues came nearly to an end

By Steve Estes

The year 2012 started off with some low points, scored some lower points, hit a high note, and finished with a flash.

From bad crap to good crap

It was the year of ups and downs for the county’s last remaining central wastewater system, the Cudjoe Regional. As 2012 dawned into the history books, county officials were told that there was very little chance they would get any of the promised $200 million in grant money from the state because Gov. Rick Scott disliked debt. That sent officials scrambling back to the drawing board trying to find a way to raise $150 million that wouldn’t send every resident in the Keys to the poor house.

The first leg of the financial stool officials said they needed was easy. They billed the residents for hook ups. That was initially set for $5,700 per equivalent dwelling unit, a number that had both local residents and business owners checking their meager bank accounts to try and see if they would have to go out of business or move.

That assessment was later dropped to $4,500 per EDU. That didn’t change everyone’s mind, but it was much better than the alternative.

The second leg was the promised state money, and county officials believed they had found a way to entice the least popular Governor in the country to at least consider the request. As Florida’s unemployment rate stagnated near the top of the heap in the US, with a Governor that had promised quick job recovery using tax slashing methods known to be failures on a national level and a local level for two decades the county promised quick, swift job creation with $150 million in construction jobs and that money poured into the local and state economy to boost lagging sales tax revenues. Oh, yeah, and a quick small bite to lower the perennially high unemployment rate.

Coupled with the promise of dozens of jobs long-term to maintain yet another piece of public infrastructure that the public didn’t have to pay for, Scott relented and backed the county’s proposal for the first installment of $50 million.

That left just the last $50 million or so, which officials hoped to get from an extension of the one-cent infrastructure sales tax. They would have to wait until November, however, to get that answer as the local voters had to agree to pay that tax for another 15 years beyond the slated sunset date of 2018 and that had to be done during a general election cycle where one party preached nothing but less taxes.

The local voters decided that having the help of our three-million-plus tourists each year to pay for the crap they flushed down our system would be better than forking out another $50 or $60 million from local pockets alone was a better idea than the alternative.

So the tax passed and as a last gesture of 2012, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority board awarded construction contracts on all three phases of the system with shovels set to go into the ground in February 2013.

County becomes de facto species protectors

In the early going of 2012, it looked as though the county and the feds would be ending up in a protracted legal battle to see who actually had the responsibility to protect endangered species on the federal list.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency had been whipped in court by environmental groups who claimed that the former was abdicating its responsibility to protect species by allowing the latter to continue to issue flood insurance for development in high-quality habitat.

To get themselves out from under the onus of spending beaucoup bucks to enhance species protection, the two federal giants decided that Monroe County should be the first line of defense and implement a program to track all development, within certain parameters, in said habitat. And when said habitat was expended, Monroe County would begin denying more permits.

That irked county officials, who felt that should the feds want more protection for endangered species, they should at least be willing to stand at the plate when the time came to pay property owners for land they couldn’t build on that they had hoped to later on.

But the feds thumbed their collective noses at that notion, the audacity of anyone telling them they should stand at the table when there was money on it….huh…and instead threatened to throw Monroe County out of the National Flood Insurance Program if it didn’t acquiesce.

That brought a threat of a lawsuit from the county, which wasn’t involved in the original suit, and cooler heads to the table for bargaining sessions multiple times.

What became of all that back and forth was a new development practice that allows the county to give out building permits in habitat areas if that development won’t adversely affect sensitive species habitat, and even if it does a little bit, but to get federal review on anything the county feels will adversely affect habitat, and let the feds sign off on that development.

But there was a silver lining to that potentially onerous cloud in that about 15,000 properties got off the infamous FEMA injunction list by default, some where residential homes had been sitting in the permitting system for years while the court cases dragged on and on.

The agreement set a maximum impact limit for species habitat areas after which the two sides will have to come back to the table and negotiate something different, or the feds will have to declare a building moratorium in sensitive habitat, which opens some governmental agency up to some potential takings suits, and that is a question that may arise sometime in the next decade. But not this year.

Downstairs enclosures get some reprieve, take some beating

The state Legislature booted FEMA to the curb in 2012 when it passed a state statute that outlawed using building permits as a means to force an inspection of what FEMA feels are illegal enclosures below base flood elevation here that might be used for living space.

That nullified one of the three programs FEMA had forced the county to implement to eradicate lower level enclosures the federal agency has claimed proliferated under lax enforcement and would eventually cause millions in clean up costs when the big one roared through and sent the downstairs stuff scattering across the landscape.

So in early 2012 FEMA told the county that it had to extend the insurance pilot inspection program to go back and whack on property owners who hadn’t voluntarily complied with notifications of needed inspections in the first rounds of the pilot.

County officials sort of gave FEMA a “what the ….” Attitude and sent notice back that they felt the pilot had been accomplished from their point of view and pound sand by the way.

FEMA hasn’t yet pounded that sand, nor has it responded to the county’s claim that their part in the pilot is over, and 2013 dawns with that issue still somewhere on the stove top simmering.

But when the state eradicated the inspection on permit program, FEMA came back and demanded some tweaks to the county’s enclosure inspection program so that it could harass more property owners who might be sitting out there with a lower level enclosure.

Those tweaks took a few months, but what officials here decided to do was add some teeth to the existing inspection-on-sale program whereby you could go through code enforcement if you didn’t get an enclosure inspection when you sold the home, made it possible for the buyer to sue the seller for not disclosing that the enclosure might not be up to snuff as per FEMA and then offered property owners a voluntary program to come into compliance with FEMA dictates.

Called the Certificate of Compliance Program, homeowners can voluntarily ask for an enclosure inspection, even if the property has already been through one, and get a piece of paper that validates their lack of violations of FEMA property, ensuring future buyers that they wouldn’t have to get harassed by the county or FEMA over some extra footage below base flood.

But the issue still isn’t completely resolved.

Hurricane evacuation clearance becomes another exercise in paper shuffling

State and local officials have known for years that if a major hurricane spawned close by and traveled fast, said storm would probably blow through Monroe County long before county officials could get the living people out of the way, probably leaving those people stranded on some portion of the All-American Road that US 1 has become.

A few years back, the state and county cooked up a plan to change their evacuation strategy two a three-phase approach that would demand visitors leave 48 hours in advance of gale-force winds, mobile homes and low-lying areas evacuate 36 hours in advance and permanent residents out 24 hours in advance.

But with residential building catching up with the capacity of US 1 to handle traffic, that system wasn’t cutting the mustard, so with the 2010 census in hand, the two groups set out to fashion an evacuation plan that would ensure all the people in the county could get out of the way of that major storm before it blew ashore.

And to do that, they decided that since hurricane season coincides with off-season, there wouldn’t be everybody in town, there wouldn’t be all those homes occupied, and there wouldn’t be all those mobile homes to empty.

And using those numbers, the two came up with a hurricane evacuation clearance time that met the state’s mandate to get everyone out in 24 hours before the onset of gale-force winds.

Of course, no one checked with Mother Nature to make sure she would always give 48 hours notice before trumping up a major storm that formed quickly and moved faster and targeted the small island chain at the end of the peninsula that is called Florida and has but one single strand of highway for ingress and egress.

Electrification of No Name Key continues two-decade battle

Someone, or some group, has been trying to bring commercial power to No Name Key for the better part of 25 years. And hasn’t succeeded.

But 2012 brought about some game changers in that battle. First, Circuit Court Judge David Audlin, who in his career before the bench had already opined that No Name deserved power, tossed out a county declaratory action that sought to clarify several legal issues officials felt they had.

Audlin instead kicked the can to the Public Service Commission which has been sitting idly by waiting for some court to take some concrete action for nearly a year before it chimes in on what it thinks it can control in the fight.

Using a state statute that prohibits the county from regulating public utilities in the established rights-of-way, Keys Energy signed a contract with 22 homeowners on No Name Key to run a commercial power grid to the tiny island of 43 homes. And so the poles went up before the numerous court appeals have run their course and before the PSC has even heard whatever it intends to hear.

Because the utility didn’t get county permission to cross private public lands, the county filed a trespass case. Various homeowners on No Name Key have intervened in various ways throughout the course of the year, and now all sides are locked in a monumental legal struggle over the eventual energizing of the liens to the homes, for the grid is hot, it’s just that the county insists it can’t issue building permits based on a prohibition in its land use code.

That might not be an issue in early 2013, however, as newly seated District One Commissioner Danny Kolhage appears ready to end the battle by becoming the third vote to change the prohibition in the county code over the next several months and eliminate the mounting legal bills of all concerned.

The No Name Key saga will take another turn in the box in early 2013 as the Third District Court of Appeals hears the county’s case against the dismissal by Audlin, and whatever side loses that has vowed to appeal that decision, and the PSC meanwhile stands by to act on whatever it intends to act on and then defend that action on appeal by one side or the other.

Feds tighten burn parameters after 2011 out-of-control blaze

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, mother agency to the National Key Deer Refuge, agreed to change the parameters under which it will ignite prescribed burns on federal lands in coming years.

Those changes come in response to a burn in 2011 that ignited 100 acres instead of 22 and forced the evacuation of nearly four dozen homes directly in the path of that blaze.

The changes call for higher humidity at ignition, lower wind speeds, more rain in the days preceding the burn and more experienced people on the ground.

There will also be more notification of local residents when a burn occurs so they can take shelter, or man a water hose.

Commercial fishing suffers bad year

When lobster ended in early 2012, fishermen felt they had been in a good year, what with Chinese buyers jacking up the price, and felt somewhat the same when crab season closed in mid-year.

But no one anticipated that when the 2012-2013 season kicked off, both lobster and crab seasons would turn into what local fishermen are calling the worst season in decades.

Lobster catches were low from day one, but after Hurricane Sandy roiled the waters here, the lobster all but disappeared.

Crab season was a non-starter from day one and officials are trying to do some research to find out why, which does little to nothing to put money in the pockets of the commercial fishermen and the businesses that support them this year.

Windstorm becomes hot issue again

Citizens Insurance, the state-run windstorm insurance company that is the only resort for Keys’ homeowners, on the orders of Gov. Rick Scott, began a process early in 2012 to divest itself of as many policies as possible.

In doing so, the Keys were hit hard as the company pulled builder’s risk insurance, stopped insuring vacation rentals, stopped insuring homes valued over $1 million and began a program of re-inspections for discount credits that has thus far served to result in tens of thousands of dollars in extra premiums for Keys’ homeowners.

FIRM (Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe) has geared up again to fight the moves, and late in 2012 got the insurer to agree to pay for an actuarial study to take into account Monroe County’s real storm threat—water—and the best building codes in the state.

FIRM says that if Citizens can make more than $500 million in profit from the Keys’ policies in 10 years, the rates being charged probably are somewhat off base.

The results of that study should be available by November 2013, until then, the insurer runs amok cutting coverages and policies at will.

Cats continue to be wild

As part of the settlement concerning building in habitat, the county had to agree to prohibit outdoor cats in areas where small rodents on the endangered species list reside. To build anew in one of those areas, homeowners must agree to not own an outdoor cat, or allow their indoor cat to roam freely.

The refuge has also promised that it will begin its cat trapping program, sometime, soon, in the near future, possibly sooner than later….

Scandal plagues county government

The grand jury actually told county officials they should fire their top two administrators for their lack of judgment and oversight during the iPhone/iPad scandal that rocked county government in 2012.

Former Technical Services Director Lisa Druckemiller was charged with stealing more than $30,000 in county consumer electronics and selling the proceeds to county employees, friends and family…of course the items had been purchased using county taxpayer money.

The Board of County Commissioners decided not to follow the grand jury’s recommendation, upholding a long-standing tradition in the Keys, and instead meted out some suspensions, asked the county administrator to pay costs for the penalty hearings for employees who bought the goods, and changed the purchasing policy to maintain better control of the items.

Elections change landscape

In November voters went to the polls, elected long-time Undersheriff Rick Ramsay to the top job, put in a new school board member, allowed Kolhage to take his seat on the county commission uncontested, lost Ron Saunders as a State Representative and gained his long-time assistant, told the state they wanted the FKAA board to revert to an elected one and extended the one-cent infrastructure sales tax.

Oh and they also ousted incumbent State Attorney Dennis Ward, replaced Kolhage in the county clerk’s office with a former Sheriff’s Office finance guru, seated a new mosquito control board member, put the long-time assistant in the seat of the Elections Supervisor and tossed US Rep Dave Rivera out on his ear.

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