Research necessary to save hook up costs

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners collectively seemed to agree Wednesday that it would cease changing its collective mind on what type of wastewater collection system would be available in the various subdivisions that comprise the Cudjoe Regional service area….next month.

Last month, the BOCC members approved converting some areas on Cudjoe Key, Sugarloaf Key and Big Pine Key from low-pressure grinder pumps to gravity pipes, at a cost of about $10 million in additional money.

Wednesday commissioners seemed loathe to add any more money to the now $170-million project, but will accept analysis on similar subdivisions from the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority next month to make the final/final decision on what changes may or may not be made.

County Engineer Kevin Wilson told the BOCC that he felt the FKAA and county staff had done study on other areas that might fall within the parameters set by the commission in recent decisions, and “We are at the point where we have made all the changes we feel fall within those parameters and it’s time to begin to move forward.”

FKAA Executive Director Kirk Zuelch said that the changes being made may well push the project completion past the state’s mandated deadline of Dec. 31, 2015 for the implementation of advanced wastewater treatment in the Keys, and that date may go further south if more changes are made.

The issue has been, and continues to be, that many residents don’t want individual grinder pump stations on their property. The feeling from those residents is that the grinder pump is an inferior system to gravity lines, and they also have issues with the system’s inconveniences during extended power outages as the pump requires electrical power to operate.

And while officials aren’t yet entirely sure what properties will be gravity and what properties will be grinder pumps, those same officials do warn property owners to complete some serious research in the coming months as to the ancillary costs for whatever system may be in the street, or the yard.

“There’s a lot of information out there that isn’t getting to the property owners, things that might make their own decision-making process simpler for them,” said Wilson.

The $4,500 sewer assessment fee that is to be paid by every  residential property owner in the Cudjoe Regional service area does not cover the homeowner’s cost for required laterals and/or electrical service.

And that cost can vary greatly by property depending on a multitude of factors.

A simple gravity lateral from the home to the street that is approximately 30 feet in length has been quoted by local plumbing contractors at about $2,000. The longer the run for the lateral, the higher the price. The homeowner also needs a plumbing permit from the county building department, which the BOCC Wednesday left at the current price of $70.

In addition, every homeowner will have to abandon their existing septic tank, a process that has been quoted by local contractors at about $700 barring property-specific peculiarities. The homeowner will also have to obtain a tank abandonment permit from the Department of Health, a fee of $95.

One of the issues the county will have to work out in policy decisions, particularly for properties where grinder pumps will be installed, is the potential lack of wastewater services for homeowners because of inspection requirements.

According to environmental health officials at DOH, the county normally requires a finalized permit from DOH before it will finalize a permit for the sewer lateral or the grinder installation. That could mean homeowners are left without away to flush for a brief period unless the two groups work out a timing schedule that is beneficial to the homeowner. Because Grassy Key is the first area where grinder pumps will come on line, the situation may prove to be a non-issue. It’s a wait-and-see.

Some homeowners have already begun the process of researching individual costs for laterals and power installs, and some of the results have been somewhat mortifying.

One Big Pine homeowner whose house is about 30 years old was quoted nearly $15,000 for his power circuit for a grinder pump because the house only had 150-amp service and the panel needed to be upgraded to 200-amp to add the pump circuit.

That doesn’t necessarily have to happen, said Tom Walker, FKAA project engineer, at a recent homeowner meeting.

“If your home doesn’t have the interior panel service required, you can check into bringing the power supply right off the meter box into a sub-panel that would feed the pump circuit. That’s generally cheaper than a whole house makeover in service,” said Walker.

The permit fees for that job might be different than just running an additional circuit from the panel in the house, but the basic electrical permit will now be rolled into the cost for the lateral so that every property owner, gravity or grinder, will pay the same permit costs, the BOCC decided Wednesday.

How much it will cost to have an electrician do the job, “Can be all over the map depending on the difficulty and the specifications,” said Wilson.

One Big Pine homeowner received a quote of $800 for an independent sub-panel installation while others have received both higher and lower quotes.

Regardless of the cost of the lateral and electrical installs, homeowners will have to plan on shelling out just about $900 in permit and abandonment costs.

And again, none of that is covered by the $4,500 assessment fee that will be paid by every homeowner in the service area. That assessment is the property owner’s cost-participation share for the construction of the system.

Wilson said homeowners also need to be aware of the cost differentials between gravity laterals and grinder pump installations.

Everyone will pay the abandonment charges, and everyone will pay the plumbing permit fees.

For instance, one Big Pine homeowner received a quote of $9,000 for a gravity pipe installation due to the length of the run and the difficult configuration of the pipe needed to reach the street.

The home is currently slated for grinder pump installation and because FKAA pays the cost of the pipe from the pump to the street and the electrical connection from the house to the pump, the homeowner’s costs can be greatly reduced by siting the pump station as far back on the lot as possible close to the house, lowering the length of pipe to run to the pump pit and decreasing installation costs.

The total quote for grinder installation was less than $2,000 with both electrical and plumbing work, plus abandonment and permit fees, three times less than the gravity pipe alone.

Wilson also said that homeowners should be very careful when choosing contractors for the work.

“Use a licensed Monroe County or state contractor,” he said.

According to County Building Official Jerry Smith any contractor that holds a county or state license in the field can be used for the work.

For those on limited or fixed income, the county also has some grant money available to offset the costs of installing laterals.

For instance, a family of four earning less than $69,450 per year can qualify for grant monies. The level of funding will be based on needs analysis.

According to the grant information on the county website, program funds will pay for eligible activities, which includes sewer connection fees (not assessments), septic tank abandonment costs, and associated construction fees, which Wilson says includes electrical connections for those forced onto grinder pumps.

Applicants for single-family home assistance must be permanent residents of Monroe County where central sewer connections are available or will soon be available. The home must be located within the political jurisdiction of Monroe County. The household income meets the eligibility requirements.

If you think you may be eligible for financial assistance you van call 294-1000 or 877-464-9300 for more information.

“Anyone interested in applying for grant money should begin the process sooner rather than later,” said Wilson. “If you get approval, the money is set aside for you until you’re ready to proceed.”

According to Smith, permits normally run out in a year, but because sewer connections are expected to be a years-long process, he said the county has made the decision not to expire the permits until the job is done.

That shouldn’t, however, be a rallying call to rush out now and apply for the permit, he said. There are factors homeowners must know when they apply.

According to Zuelch, FKAA will attempt to work with individual property owners to site the pipes, gravity or grinder, in the most advantageous location for the homeowner.

“If you have questions about the configuration of your pipe to the street, call us and we’ll walk the property with you to help make those decisions,” said Zuelch.

Homeowners on grinder pump systems may have already received a questionnaire from FKAA asking them to relinquish an easement on the property so crews can install and later maintain the pump systems. That same questionnaire asks where the homeowner would like the pump sited.

“Put it as close to the house as you can,” said Zuelch. “You have to pay to reach the pump with the pipe and the closer you get, the less expensive to you.”

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