Judge upholds challenge denial

By Steve Estes

Circuit Court Judge David Audlin Wednesday upheld the issuance of contracts by the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority to construct the three phases of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System.

That clears the way for Monday’s scheduled ground-breaking ceremony at 2 p.m. at the FKAA pumping station on Ramrod Key where local residents and elected officials will cheer the beginning of a project that has been more than a decade in the making, and at one point was considered nearly dead on the drawing board.

The ruling also cleared the way for a guaranteed $30 million grant from the state to help finance the Cudjoe Regional project, which has been estimated at $146 million. The remainder of this year’s $50 million goes to kick-start Islamorada’s system.

The state has promised up to $200 million in grants to help Monroe County pay for the more than $700 million process of developing central sewer systems in the Keys, albeit at a time when only two systems remained to break ground, the Cudjoe Regional and Islamorada.

The caveat for the money this year, however, was that FKAA had to have contracts signed prior to March 1 for construction of the system. The Aqueduct board awarded those contracts well in advance of that deadline, but two of the three were challenged by the second-place bidders. FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch denied the challenge, and Audlin Wednesday upheld that denial.

FKAA officials claimed that the challenges would have no effect on the state money because the nearly $22 million treatment plant contract for the central plant on Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key wasn’t challenged and would start on time this month. They also claimed that the contracts were awarded, and unless the judge issued an injunction, the work would proceed.

According to Zuelch, all three projects will run concurrently once the contract details have been ironed out.

Officials expect the treatment plant to be on line in 18 to 24 months, with the inner island collection system, covering Upper Sugarloaf, Cudjoe and Summerland Keys, ready to hook in upon completion of the treatment plant, and the outer island collection system, covering Lower Sugarloaf and Ramrod through Big Pine Key, ready to hook in shortly thereafter.

County officials have already begun to lobby the state Legislature for the second $50 million installment for next year. Most of that money will go to the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District and Marathon. If there is a third and fourth year, the county will see some more funds.

Monroe County Attorney Bob Shillinger told the Board of County Commissioners Wednesday about the Audlin ruling, and added that the challengers could appeal that ruling to the Third District Court of Appeals but it should have no effect on the state grant.

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