“Double Dip” treatment for some in system

By Steve Estes

Property owners living in the area to be serviced by the outer islands portion of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System began receiving their assessment letters last week.

While the assessment amount is still $4,500 per equivalent dwelling unit, roughly equal to the flow from a typical single-family residence, those who opt to pay the assessment over 20 years saw a decrease from last year’s amount.

For the first year of the assessment amortization for properties in the inner island area, those who opted for the 20-year payment schedule had $402 added to the tax bill. Those who take that option this year will be billed just $310 for the year.

That decrease comes as county officials have secured lower cost financing for the anticipated bonds that will be issued to build the Cudjoe Regional system.

Property owners have the option to pay the full amount prior to August 31. Those who choose not to do so will see a $310 payment due on the 2013 tax bill that will be mailed in November.

The payment is treated the same as property taxes. Those who don’t pay the amount can be subject to liens on the property.

Those who disagree with the assessment amount, which could be different for commercial properties, can still appeal the figure.

But there are those who got the bill for the assessment who have different decisions to make than whether to pay it now or go in for the long haul.

Folks such as Larry and Dru Fox of Big Pine Key have to make the decision whether to basically abandon $25,000 in already spent money, or pay for a service they won’t receive until maybe 2020, likely five years after the rest of those on the Cudjoe Regional.

The Fox family was one of the last to be snared in the possible  double-dip scenario surrounding sewers in the Lower Keys. Until 2009, on properties where systems failed for any reason, they could be repaired or replaced as long as either method met interim standards and not necessarily the state’s advanced wastewater treatment standards.

After that date, and before the county actually began assessing properties for the sewer system, any property where an on-site system failed were forced to put in an AWT compliant system, even though the installation of central sewers in that area might be only a few years away.

The Foxes had to spend $25,000 for a compliant system in 2012, just weeks before the county approved the assessment resolution.

The state legislature this year passed a bill that allows AWT compliant systems to remain in operation until 2020 so that homeowners like the Foxes wouldn’t have to toss tens of thousands of dollars into the proverbial waste pile.

But the Legislature didn’t tell Monroe County what it had to do with those same properties when it comes to assessments, nor did it change the rules surrounding when homeowners can be billed by the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority for the use of the pipe in the street.

So, lacking any other mandate from the state, Monroe County is assessing those properties this year. There has been talk, but not seriously, of allowing those douple-dip systems to remain in place and let the owners of them pay the assessment in 2020 or when the system fails to meet standards. But that hasn’t been taken up as a policy matter by the Board of County Commissioners.

The county has an ordinance on the books that requires property owners to hook into the central line within 30 days of such line becoming available. FKAA will issue a notice of availability. After the first billing cycle that notification is made, county rules allow FKAA to begin billing the base facility charge even if the property isn’t yet hooked up.

The state legislation grants one year. That leeway is necessary, says County Engineer Kevin Wilson,because there aren’t, and won’t be, enough plumbers in the Monroe County to hook everybody up within 30 days, particularly when larger neighborhoods begin to come on line within days or weeks of one another.

So the Foxes are facing a $310 per year tax bill increase, regardless of what property taxes do during the upcoming budget cycle, and the specter of being billed in excess of $25 per month for a pipe they don’t need to use.

If they come on line by the December 31, 2015 deadline, the Foxes will pay more than $1,500 in usage fees for the pipe in front of their house without even dropping so much as a spit into it.

Or they can abandon their by-then four-year-old $25,000 septic system, cover it over, and count their losses,  hook into the central pipe and begin paying the base facility charge and the usage fee, estimated to be somewhere around $50 total monthly for the average home.

And they aren’t the only ones. It’s estimated there are between 40 and 50 such properties in the Cudjoe Regional service area.

The Cudjoe Regional area is the only one that could have been affected by the double-dip scenario since every other central system in the unincorporated county had begun construction prior to the expiration of the interim system legislation.

“I guess we need to revisit those compliant properties out there,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “I don’t feel it’s fair to force people to pay a base facility charge for a service they’re not using, and won’t for a while.”

Gastesi said that county officials would first have to make a policy decision allowing those property owners some leeway, decide what that leeway would be, and then come to some agreement with FKAA on how to bill those properties in the future.

As for the assessment—Gastesi isn’t so sure about potential breaks on that one.

“It costs x dollars to do this project. The supposition is that every property in Monroe County benefits from the project by cleaner near shore waters, thus they all contribute to the cost in an equitable fashion,” he said. “We will be issuing bonds to pay for the system construction. I don’t know if leaving those few properties out of the equation now would have any significant effect, but we’ll have to find out.”

He said even the double-dip properties, “Will have to pay the assessment at some point. I’m not so sure I’m sold that it shouldn’t be now rather than later.”

But that is a policy decision, and one that Gastesi says he will discuss with the elected policy makers on the BOCC in the near future.

Until those two decisions are made, or not, the Foxes still wrestle with how to handle their own personal dilemma.

“What would be fair, to us, is to allow our system to operate until 2020, delay the base facility charge until then and allow us to pay the assessment when we hook in, just like those folks who build houses from now on will have to do,” said Larry Fox in an earlier statement.

The $4,500 per EDU assessment will become part of the permitting fee for new construction after the initial assessment roll is certified this year. It will be payable at time of permit application, with no option for 20-year amortization.

“We have tried to maintain fairness with each of the unincorporated county’s sewer systems,” said Gastesi. “This looks like a fairness question that needs to be answered.”

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