St. Peter sticker shock
Sewer assessment raises questions

By Steve Estes

Officials at St. Peter Church on Big Pine Key were just a little taken aback this week when they received their notice from Monroe County on the amount of their system development fee for the planned wastewater project.

And Father Tony, a community figure for about three decades, hopes that someone made a simple mistake that can be easily rectified.

The bill to the church for its sewer assessment was just over $132,000.

“It’s not like we are the richest church in the area,” said Father Tony. “That would be a lot of money for us to raise.”

The assessment notice gives the church until August 31 to pay the total amount, or Father Tony can elect to pay the assessment in 20 annual installments at $9,150.50 each, meaning the church would have to pay a total of $183,060 for its assessment.

To say that he doesn’t understand the assessment amount would be an understatement for Father Tony.

“We don’t use a great deal of water. We don’t have a full-time kitchen, I only shower once a day, we feed people on occasion and we water our plants,” he said.

He says that the monthly water bill for the only Catholic Church on Big Pine Key is between $90 and $115 per month.

“Our last bill showed that we used 14,000 gallons for the month and the bill was $114,” he said. “We’ve had lower bills.”

Father Tony said there was a single day last year when he was watering the garden and forgot to turn off the water when he turned in for the night, “And we fed a lot of people here after Wilma,” but he’s relatively certain the facility never used enough water to justify the assessment of 29.5 EDUs (equivalent dwelling units, or roughly the average water usage for a typical single-family home).

The church does provide irrigation for the soccer fields that are used by the Big Pine AYSO soccer league, but those pipes are on a separate meter and the bills there are paid for by the county which leases the field for $1 per year.

“The only thing I can say is that the Holy Water we use must be a lot more expensive than other water that comes out of the pipe,” he said.

Non-residential sewer assessments are calculated using the average flow for a single-family home. That average is 167 gallons per day, meaning the average home uses about 5,000 gallons per month.

“So we might be two or two-and-a-half times above the residential average,” said Father Tony. “But no way are we 30 times above the residential average.”

Non-residential sewer assessments are calculated based on the average water flow of the highest three consecutive months over the last three years. Using the math outlined by the county in calculating EDUs for the assessment, the church would have had to have used 5,010 gallons per day.

“Our bills show much less than that,” said Father Tony.

He said he plans to immediately appeal the assessment to the county. The time period for appeals has passed, but County Administrator Roman Gastesi has said in the past that no appeal will be turned away.

Using the county’s own math, however, Father Tony agrees that someone probably put the decimal point in the wrong place when the form was printed and never caught the mistake. Using that math, the EDU charge for the church would be roughly 2.95 EDUs.

It could be that, says County Engineer Kevin Wilson, or it could be that someone assigned the soccer field irrigation meter to the church, which could have drastically hiked the water usage numbers.

The irrigation meter is billed to Monroe County under their lease terms with the church for the soccer fields and is exempt from assessments.

“We’re pretty sure that a mistake was made somewhere,” said Wilson. “And we can promise that whatever that mistake was, we will fix it.”

When the wastewater master plan was first adopted in 2006, St. Peter was considered to be in a cold spot, so in 2007, the church had a state-of-the-art aerobic system installed.

“We had to pay about $40,000 for that system,” said Father Tony. “Then they put us in the hot spot, so we’ll still have to abandon that relatively new system and hook into the sewer when it gets here.”

The county mailed the assessment notice last year to the Archdiocese in Miami.

“It wasn’t a bill, so they never forwarded it to us to check,” said Father Tony. “This one asked for money so we got it.”

And the shock that went with it.

This isn’t the first situation Wilson has encountered where an absentee property owner, or a corporate owner, ignored the initial assessment notification and only responded when the notice came out asking for payment, which was last week for many users on the outer island system of the Cudjoe Regional.

“We’re still working on appeals from the inner island areas, as well as outer islands areas,” said Wilson. “We will get to all of them, and any that need to be adjusted will be.”

He said he’s pretty sure the St. Peter assessment is one of those that will have to be adjusted.

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