Start fee policy conversation now

By Steve Estes

With shovels slated to go in the ground in February for the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater system, the county has put off long enough some policy discussions about what to do with hook-up assessments that could quite conceivably drive some small businesses in the area out of business.

In today’s sluggish economy, the additional expense of hooking a commercial enterprise into the wastewater system might be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back for some small businesses in the area.

We’ve heard the tired argument that the assessments have been levied in other areas and no breaks were given. We hear that argument. We also hear the argument from the other side that the only major commercial areas in the Lower Keys where wastewater is currently available are Stock Island, where the assessment fee was $2,700 per equivalent dwelling unit in a time of a booming economy, and a smaller one on Big Coppitt where fees were set at $4,500 per EDU like the Cudjoe Regional, but again in a much more booming economy than what we are experiencing today.

When those systems came into being, real estate prices were still on the upswing and business owners could borrow at low rates against the property to pay the assessments and not have to use the 20-year amortization schedule being floated by the county now at what amounts to greater than five percent interest.

But the Cudjoe Regional will have a major commercial area on Summerland Key, a smaller one on Sugarloaf Key, a sporadic and small commercial center on Cudjoe Key, a few businesses on Ramrod Key and a few businesses on Little Torch. But Big Pine is the major commercial hub in the Lower Keys. And other than the occasional national behemoth, Big Pine is primarily small locally owned and operated businesses.

Assessments in the tens of thousands of dollars could well be the death knell for some of them.

We don’t expect county government to cut huge breaks. But we do expect some kind of policy decision going forward that will allow the small businesses in the region to do what’s right, connect to the system, and be able to stay in business with the thousands of jobs they provide to the local economy and the tremendous number of services they provide to both locals and visitors.

Perhaps a system similar to Marathon’s where individual negotiations take place would be in order, or to Key Largo’s where businesses that can’t afford to stay afloat with the hefty assessment pay a smaller assessment up front and a bigger user fee on the back end.

None of these solutions would be that hard to design if we put some level heads on working toward the solution.

And perhaps we can look at using an extra year of infrastructure sales tax revenue to cover the shortfalls created by allowing small businesses to continue to perform for their community.

It’s going to take a concerned county commissioner to bring the issue to the table and spark an open dialogue.

If it turns out that there’s nothing that can be done, small business owners may have to fend for themselves. But we don’t believe that will be the case.

And we know that the Lower Keys, where the majority of the workforce lives, plays, shops and exists, can’t stand another mass sell off or closing of local businesses like what we saw when the economy went south in 2008 and beyond until we started seeing some solid recovery last year.

No one is asking for miracles. No one is asking for the county to give away the store.

But we are asking for an open, honest conversation about the issue that truly looks at potential solutions with the pros and cons of any potential solution to be laid squarely on the table.

Time is running short for this discussion to take place.

It’s a conversation that should have already been started.

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