Infrastructure must be done first

By Steve Estes

We are all happy to see the economic indicators for the Keys trending upward with property valuations expected to rise for the next budget cycle, sales tax income increasing, and bed tax monies on the upswing again.

We have been very lucky that we didn’t suffer through the current recession as much as some other areas where wholesale flight to other areas was the norm and unemployment remains rampant.

But let’s not test that luck just yet.

Big ticket spending not so long ago put Monroe County in a hole from which it has taken nearly five years to dig out. Add to that the downturn in revenues from the economic recession and lower wages, and Monroe County had a deep hole to climb from.

And by most accounts we made it out of the morass onto firmer ground.

Now is not the time to shake that ground.

Facing an unfunded state mandate to upgrade wastewater to the tune of about $500 million, we collectively agreed to tax ourselves and our visitors an extra penny on sales. And we agreed to that to fund wastewater upgrades.

But the ballot language wasn’t strong enough to keep those looking for loopholes from finding them and less of that original sales tax went to wastewater than we had envisioned.

If it had all gone to wastewater, it still wouldn’t have been enough. But it would have been what the people who voted for the tax levy envisioned.

Now, we have just agreed to extend that tax on ourselves and our visitors to help finish paying for the wastewater the last levy didn’t pay for. And again, it appears the ballot language isn’t strong enough.

We understand that after years of forced austerity from the economic downturn and some bad decisions, quality-of-life projects have to come back to the surface.

And we agree with that as there are several we would like to see get off the ground.

But we don’t agree with pursuing these projects ahead of what has been promised.

Once the governmental body determines that wastewater is fully funded, under the terms of the ballot language, it may use the sales tax money in any other lawful way.

We have an idea how much wastewater is going to chew out of that money.

But we must also live up to some subtle promises we made to Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District to route some of the sales tax money back to them to help their users defray capital costs. We support that.

We must also see a concrete plan in place to repair our aging, and continually deteriorating, roads and bridges. A good quality-of-life project for many of us would be not losing tires and axles to potholes and rough dirt roads.

Once we have determined a good guesstimate for the costs of roads and bridge projects, then we can look at what it will cost for the much-needed canal clean up and restoration project.

Without the sewers, near shore water quality will suffer. Without the canal restoration, the sewers mean little to nothing. Without the roads and bridges, what does it matter?

And after the true infrastructure needs are met, or we have a financing plan to meet them that can’t be changed down the road by the next county commission, then we can take a hard run at quality-of-life issues.

The voters agreed to extend the tax to tackle infrastructure needs. We’d all like to have something nice to have. But what we need are clean canals and good roads.

County officials estimate that there will be about $184 million in available money after wastewater is taken care of.

Put the research into motion. Gather all the data you might need.

But until we can definitively say how much we’ll have left of that estimated $184 million after we address all the must-haves, let’s not commit any money to the nice-to-haves.

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