Challenge may force $$$ move

By Steve Estes

Two court challenges to the awarding of bids to build the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater inner and outer islands collection systems may have placed $50 million state money in jeopardy to help finance that project.

In December, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority awarded bids for the long-stalled project projected to serve some 8,800 units between Lower Sugarloaf and Big Pine Keys.

The second-place bidder for both the inner island collection system, Upper Sugarloaf, Cudjoe and Summerland, and the outer island collection system, Lower Sugarloaf Key, Ramrod, the Torches and Big Pine Key filed appeals of that award.

That appeal was denied by FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch and both subsequently filed suit in the local courts seeking to have the awards overturned.

After our years of begging, county officials last year finally got the state to make good on $50 million of a promised $200 million to help fund the remaining sewer systems in the Keys. The only two systems currently not in the construction phase are the Cudjoe Regional and Islamorada.

Local officials agreed that the county should get $30 million of that money to jump-start the Cudjoe Regional and Islamorada would get the remaining $20 million for its system.

County officials plan to use that money, $20 million in local infrastructure sales tax money and about $39 million in user hook up fees to do the bulk of the Cudjoe project. The rest of the anticipated $145 million cost would be paid for by the extension of the infrastructure sales tax approved by voters in November for another 15 years after it ends in 2018.

But the state’s money came with the caveat that Monroe County show it was ready to put shovels in the ground and get these past-due systems in the works by having signed construction contracts by March 1.

The contracts were signed by the lowest bidders and FKAA following the appeal denial, but the court could issue a stay.

That might jeopardize the money from the state.

According to Monroe County Attorney Bob Shillinger, both suits have been heard in the circuit court. In the inner island system challenge, he said written closing arguments have been submitted to the judge. In the outer islands challenge, closing arguments are to be briefed this week, with rebuttals due by next Monday.

“It’s conceivable the court could have decisions before the March 1 deadline,” said Shillinger.

And even though the signed contracts are in place, the challengers are asking the court to set aside those contracts until the case is final. If the court agrees to that, the March 1 deadline will come and go with no valid construction contracts in place.

And that changes the parameters of the state grant.

“If the deadline passes, we don’t actually lose the money for the Keys,” said Shillinger. “The contract states that other wastewater authorities in the Keys will be the recipient of the funds if for some reason the county isn’t ready with construction contracts.”

So the county’s $30 million could go to other sewer entities, such as the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District or Marathon, if the contracts aren’t approved by the state by March 1.

“That doesn’t mean we stop the project,” said Shillinger. “It means we may have to move forward with a different financing plan.”

What form that plan might take, and how much it might cost the residents of the Cudjoe Regional, are currently unknowns.

County officials have been lobbying the state to cut loose the second $50 million installment this year. That money was to be split among Key Largo, Marathon, Layton, Key West and the FKAA.

“Second-year plans might be affected by first-year issues,” said Shillinger.

If the state doesn’t grant another year, and the county loses this year’s allocation due to the challenges, it would have to find another way to finance the project. The state has mandated that the county develop advanced wastewater treatment central sewer systems in financially feasible areas before Dec. 31, 2015. Just under three years remain on that deadline.

FKAA officials said they hoped to have shovels in the ground for the Cudjoe Regional this month to meet the state’s March 1 deadline.

Until a court issues a stay, if it does, the Aqueduct Authority plans to move ahead on breaking ground, according to Zuelch.

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