BOCC says full ahead on Cudjoe project

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners Wednesday decided that it wasn’t interested in asking the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority to again study potential costs associated with the development of the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System.

After more than two hours of discussion, the commissioners were told that under the terms of the Inter-Local Agreement with the FKAA where the county pays for the construction and FKAA builds, operates and maintains the system, any changes to the already-bid projects would have to be agreed to by the FKAA board anyway.

The discussion arose following a scathing report two weeks ago from Walt Drabinsky, an energy consultant who lives in Cudjoe Gardens and owns Pirate Wellness Center on Cudjoe Key.

In that report, Drabinsky opined that the development study for the Cudjoe Regional done in 2009 had some fatal flaws and that the hybrid system currently under construction would actually cost users up to $30 million more over the next 20 years.

Drabinsky said that the number of grinder pumps intended for the system was excessive, and that the life cycle costs for those pumps would be significantly higher than the life cycle costs should the FKAA go with an all-gravity system, other than areas where low density dictated low-pressure system usage.

The Cudjoe Regional is a hybrid system that will use gravity for about 6,000 units and low-pressure grinder pumps for about 2,800 units. The low-pressure pumps, and correspondingly smaller transmission pipes, according to FKAA officials, are much less expensive for remote areas where residential density is low.

That doesn’t explain, said Drabinsky, why some of the more dense subdivisions, like Cudjoe Gardens and Sugarloaf Shores, have gravity on some streets and low-pressure on others.

He asked the county commission to agree to wait 30 days for a new study of the overall life cycle costs between low-pressure systems and gravity systems before finalizing construction plans.

The contractor for the regional treatment plant, located at the land fill on Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key, has already begun work, as has the contractor for the inner islands portion of the Cudjoe Regional. The inner island collection system will serve Upper Sugarloaf Key, Cudjoe Key and Summerland Key.

According to County Engineer Kevin Wilson, the design of the outer islands collection system, slated to serve Lower Sugarloaf Key and Ramrod through Big Pine Keys, is about 80 percent complete and is based on the hybrid system.

Overall, bids for the Cudjoe Regional came in at about $135 million, or about $15,500 per EDU (equivalent dwelling unit).

The decision matrix used by FKAA, according to Project Engineer Tom Walker, was based on the best value for the dollar.

And he says that the bids that came back, for less money than originally estimated, validated the decision model used by the utility.

FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said he believed that the hybrid system scenario currently in play will “be a good, efficient system.”

According to Wilson, the system as currently envisioned will work as well as advertised, and will provide the best value for the dollar for the county taxpayer and the eventual user.

Drabinsy said that research cast doubt on the future maintenance costs of the grinder pumps that will be used by FKAA in more remote areas, a claim refuted by Walker.

Zuelch said that to upgrade the properties currently slated for grinder pumps to gravity pipes would cost up to $30 million.

He said that during meetings FKAA has held with homeowner groups, they have broached the idea of the homeowner paying additional assessment to cover the cost of an upgrade to gravity, but unless an entire subdivision agreed on the switch, it wouldn’t be possible, said Zuelch.

“Any additional monies beyond what we have budgeted would have to come from future infrastructure sales tax dollars,” said Wilson.

And county officials have been talking about the future needs for that money for weeks, outlining needs for fire stations, road and bridge work, new courthouses and jails and even renovations on existing facilities and parks.

In the end, even though commissioners questioned whether the development strategy of including a higher number of grinder pumps was the best, they took no action deviating from the current course of action.

Under that course, work on the outer island system should begin this month on Lower Sugarloaf. About five miles of pipe has already been put in the ground for the inner island system, and site prep work for the treatment plant is nearly complete.

“At some point, from an engineering standpoint, you reach the point where going forward is cheaper than going back and making changes,” said Wilson. “We can make changes until the pipes go in the ground, but I don’t recommend it.”

The commission agreed.

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