BOCC divided over uses for money

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners spent several hours last week talking about potential uses for the extended infrastructure sales tax monies after it has completed funding plans for the remaining wastewater treatment facilities.

The last sewer system the county needs to complete under its auspices is the Cudjoe Regional, which at an estimated $146 million will be the largest undertaking yet to sewer the Keys under a state mandate.

But using $20 million in unexpended sales tax money from the current cycle, $30 million in grant money from the state and about $39 million in user assessments, county officials believe that it will take just over one-fourth of the remainder of the anticipated sales tax revenue to pay for the Cudjoe Regional project.

The rest of the funds were up for discussion last week.

When the county placed the extension referendum on last year’s general election ballot, it sold the levy to voters by maintaining that once the sewers were fully funded the money would be turned toward catching up on a backlog of road and bridge projects. The primary source for roads and bridges owned by the county, 42 bridges and more than 400 miles of roads, has been the gas tax, but that source has been far from adequate over the last decade to keep up on the road system in the county.

According to county estimates, it is going to take more than $32 million in sales tax money to address priority road and bridge projects, $25 million of that to catch up to where things would have been with a flush budget the last 10 years.

After last week’s discussion, county staff also added the potential of right-of-way beautification projects as a use for that money.

The county will set aside just over $1 million to do repairs on No Name Key Bridge as soon as possible. The bridge had a lackluster sufficiency rating after its last state inspection and to avoid the possibility of a weight limit decrease, the state and county will pony up some $4 million for repairs.

Those repairs will only be good for about 10 years, however, and after that the bridge may need replacement, said County Engineer Kevin Wilson.

“Now is the time to begin to put together a comprehensive capital plan for the sales tax money,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “We will use about 24 percent of the anticipated revenue for sewers, but we need to have a plan with what to do with the remaining 76 percent.”

Gastesi also asked commissioners their thoughts on whether to bond money against the revenue stream now, while interest rates are cheap, or operate on a pay-as-you-go-policy and toss the dice on price hikes in the future.

He suggested a 50/50 plan whereby the county bond enough money now to get a jump start on priority projects so that about 50 percent of the anticipated revenue from the sales tax, estimated at about $16 million per year for unincorporated Monroe County use, is used for debt service and the remaining 50 percent for pay-as-you-go projects.

“We might find that we can accomplish a lot more that way.” he said.

County staff also forwarded other proposals for the commission’s consideration including some long needed capital projects such as the replacement of the Plantation Key courthouse, estimated at $6 million, as well as the replacement of the Plantation Key jail at $4.6 million and the Marathon jail at $4.6 million.

Staff suggested setting aside some $35 million for future public safety projects, which includes the former.

Among those other projects is the purchase of eight new fire/rescue vehicles and the construction of a dedicated Emergency Operations Center estimated at $12 million. The county has been working on outside funding for a new EOC for a few years, believing that the space inside the Marathon Government Center no longer fits the bill.

A new fire station in Layton is on the wish list, as well as a rebuild of the Sugarloaf Fire Station. Staff also forwarded a proposal for a new fire station on Summerland Key.

According to Fire Chief Jim Callahan, Summerland Key is currently covered by an overlap between Big Pine Fire and the Cudjoe Key station.

“Cudjoe is in a tent next to the Sheriff’s substation. It’s not adequate,” said Callahan.

He said that the department has identified a suitable piece of land that is owned by the state and might be available at no cost to the county if it can convince state land managers to surplus the land. The plan projects $4.5 million for a Summerland Key station.

The wish list also contains $15 million for a new public works compound, some new county offices to eliminate rental properties, and a renovation of the Jefferson Browne courthouse complex in Key West.

The plan outlines $8.3 million for physical environment projects, including an already approved $5 million for the kick-off of the canal restoration master plan. The county hopes to win grants to pay for the rest of the estimated $27 million it may take to bring residential canals back to some semblance of good water quality.

After the discussion, staff also added a possible dedicated portion of the sales tax money after 2018 for land acquisition.

The state has set build out of the Keys at 3,500 more residential units in 10 years. After that, it is anticipated the county will have to deny development permits for the remaining buildable lots, causing it to face some significant lawsuits for takings.

Mayor George Neugent said he doesn’t believe the threat of build out, and its ramifications to the county, is as severe a threat as some may think.

“Us having to buy that land just ain’t gonna happen,” said Neugent. “When the time comes, the state and feds will have to step up to the plate. We could spend every penny of the sales tax money on land acquisition and still not solve the problem.”

Commissioner Danny Kolhage is the one who suggested that staff propose at least a portion of the sales tax money for land acquisition going forward, disagreeing with Neugent that the threat isn’t real.

“We need to develop a living plan that changes as circumstances change,” said Commissioner David Rice. “We won’t be out there by ourselves when the time comes to buy all that land.”

The most controversy arose when commissioners debated the quality-of-life projects staff has proposed.

Initial research has already started on the potential purchase of Rowell’s Marina in Key Largo and the potential cost of refurbishing the old 7-Mile Bridge. The latter has been closed to vehicular traffic for years after state inspectors said it was no longer safe to support the weight. The bridge is a lifeline to Pigeon Key historic site, however, and the commission has been debating ways to afford what it thinks may be about $9 million in costs to refurbish that bridge.

The plan sets aside $6 million to complete the Higgs Beach master plan in Key West, and $3.2 million to renovate Bernstein Park.

Staff suggests that $3 million go toward a new Marathon library, and $1 million each for creation of a fishing pier/observation deck at Big Pine Community Park and a passive scenic vista at the old Big Pine swimming hole.

“What we need is direction from the commission to begin to develop specifics for a long-range capital improvement plan,” said Gastesi.

A refined plan is expected to be presented during upcoming budget workshops.

The sales tax money won’t begin until the current levy expires in 2018, and voters approved an additional 15 years.

Nowhere in the plan, however, does staff address sending a portion of the sales tax proceeds to the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District to aid that agency in debt reduction for their regional wastewater system.

That was a topic of discussion in the ramp up to the vote for the tax extension.

Key Largo residents feel as though they haven’t been given their fair share of county resources, claiming that they are 60 percent of the population of unincorporated Monroe County and that much or more in tax revenues.

According to a recent email from district Executive Director Margaret Blank, she wants a discussion with county officials over an equitable split of the sales tax money to go toward paying off the capital component of the rate structure being charged Key Largo users.

Figures in the neighborhood of 10 percent of net tax proceeds back to the treatment district were bandied about before the vote to extend the tax. The referendum passed in Key Largo for the first time, said Blank, primarily because the treatment district endorsed it based on the assumption it would get a dedicated payback for debt service.

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