Apr 222016
 

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by Margaret Blank…….

Good news!

Gov. Scott signs Florida Keys Stewardship Act into Law

The Florida Keys Stewardship Act is now officially law. It’s a blessing but a mixed one. As always, it is subject to interference and manipulation by the usual suspects. The Keys didn’t get everything they asked for but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the situation being what it is.

As beneficial as the Florida Keys Stewardship Act may be, there is one thing the Governor could do that would have even more of a positive impact:

DEAL EFFECTIVELY WITH THE ISSUES ON THE FLORIDA KEYS AQUEDUCT AUTHORITY BOARD.

The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) board does not answer to the ratepayers of the Keys. They operate without any meaningful oversight, despite collecting millions of dollars in public money each year. The citizens of the Keys have tried to remedy this situation twice. Legislation was introduced in 2005 and 2013 that would have allowed for an elected board. Both of these efforts were shut down at the state level. Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the legislation in 2006. In May 2013, a similar bill died in Sen. John Thrasher’s rules committee.

The events of 2013 are especially discouraging. In November 2012, the voters of the Keys overwhelmingly supported a referendum calling for an elected board – 70% in favor. The citizens could not have been more clear. The state slammed the door on them. And the rest is history. Subsequently, spending on Cudjoe Regional spun quickly out of control. The first $20 million change order was unanimously approved by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) in November 2013 (see Item G46 of the minutes).

Given the lack of oversight, the end result is predictable. The Cudjoe Regional sewer project is now $49 million over budget. It is needlessly controversial and has spawned multiple lawsuits – some involving state agencies. There are also reports of excessive start-up problems. It’s a failure on every level. Big Coppitt, was also very expensive. And is experiencing on-going operational problems. People have raised questions about Key Haven as well. That’s another research project on my list.

At this point, Gov. Rick Scott is the only one who can provide any sort of relief to the ratepayers of the Keys. He is responsible for appointing FKAA board members. The citizens of the Keys have no choice but to depend on the governor to appoint board members who are free of significant, ongoing conflicts of interest and who are willing to follow the rules of the agency they govern.

As it stands today, there are two pressing issues to be addressed.

  1. Bob Dean’s residency issue. FKAA staff was supposed to have forwarded this matter to the governor’s office for review. It is unclear whether that actually happened. There hasn’t been a single peep out of the governor’s office. I hope this matter won’t be sent down the memory hole to die. It’s too important and the stakes are too high.
  2. Richard Toppino’s conflict of interest issues. This situation just gets worse and worse. The more I dig, the more I find. The worst part is that the FKAA is evasive (and sometimes outright dishonest) about matters having to do with Toppino. They downplayed the amount of work the Toppino companies have done with the agency. They lied when they said they don’t keep track of subcontractors. They tried to suppress a bid tab that shows Toppino benefited from a re-bid on Big Coppitt.

I hope that Gov. Rick Scott will take these issues seriously and do something to address them. Scott was not involved in the two situations where the state killed the option of an elected board, but he has been asked to look into Bob Dean’s residency issues and he did appoint Richard Toppino. He’s got an opportunity (dare I say an obligation?) to make much-needed improvements.

The citizens of the Keys have spoken loud and clear. They want the FKAA to be run by an elected board that is accountable to them. What might have happened if Jeb Bush hadn’t vetoed Rep. Sorenson’s bill back in 2005? Or if Rep. Raschein’s bill hadn’t died in Sen. Thrasher’s Rules Committee? Would Big Coppitt have cost over $21,000 per EDU? Would it be failing repeatedly to meet effluent requirements? Would Cudjoe Regional have gone $49 million over budget? Would it have been dogged by controversy and lawsuits? We’ll never know. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

The best way to see what might have been is to look at a parallel situation. Like the FKAA, the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District is a special district tasked with the responsibility of installing a central sewer system in the Keys. Unlike the FKAA, the District is governed by an elected board that is directly accountable to the citizens they serve. The District serves about as many wastewater EDU’s as the FKAA does, but their project costs about 40% less on a per EDU basis. Aside from the occasional hiccup, the District’s system is trouble-free, while Big Coppitt in particular has experienced ongoing problems.

Why should the FKAA be governed by an elected board? Because it works. The District’s track record proves it. The voters know this. That’s why they overwhelmingly support it.

Unfortunately, certain elements at the state level have made it clear that their sympathy lies with the status quo and not with the citizens of the Keys. Yes, an elected board works but the state chose to override the will of the voters. And that has cost everyone.

I know that Gov. Scott is fiscally responsible and cost-conscious. I know that he supports the Keys. There’s nothing he can do about the two failed bills. That’s water under the bridge. There’s nothing he can do about the taxpayer money that’s already been squandered. But he can do something to improve the present situation on the FKAA board.

Will he?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More from Margaret Blank at therealpoop.org

 

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Margaret Blank
Margaret Blank is the former General Manager of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District. Read more about Margaret, her experience, her research, her opinions on sewering the Keys and more in her blog: therealpoop.
 April 22, 2016  Posted by at 12:42 am ~ Opinion ~, Editorial, Issue #163  Add comments

  2 Responses to “The Best Thing the Governor Can Do For the Keys”

  1. Excellent article hit the mark! Gov. Rick Scott needs to demonstrate that he represents citizens instead of special interests. When 70% of voters by referendum want an elected board, if this is a democracy instead of an autocracy, there should be an elected board. Without changing a single law, that could have happened by Scott appointing whichever Board applicant received the most votes from FKAA customers. The vote might have been simply by an internet site that would allow one vote per matching input of customer name and account number, with logging of the ISP address to enable prosecution of fraud.

    While Margaret’s article focuses on some of the many failings of FKAA’s wastewater design and implementation, let’s not forget that FKAA sets its own rates for both water and sewer with no oversight whatsoever from the Public Service Commission or anyone else outside of their appointed Board. FKAA management also writes their own Rules (approved by the Board), and make up “policies” on the fly that are passed off as official Rules, but are really at the whim of management without any review or approval by the Board.

    As for the higher costs of FKAA wastewater projects, part of the problem is at the County level, where some of the design parameters are dictated by the system owner: Monroe County. For example, the ridiculous siting of the Cudjoe poop plant way down Blimp Road and way back behind the old landfill where pipe runs were excessively long, and hazardous ash and tire chips had to be removed and a mountain of fill brought in just to produce a vacant lot was extremely costly. One expects per EDU cost to be higher with lower density projects, but FKAA/County design decisions made it much more costly than it should have been. Vacuum was always the cheaper, most environmentally protective, and more practical means of wastewater collection, but vacuum was completely excluded from consideration. The implementation of a pressure collection system for vast areas of the Cudjoe Regional selected the most expensive, least environmentally sound, most intrusive system possible, and then implemented it in the most expensive manner possible. On top of that, the legendary and infamous FKAA “gold-plating” of specified materials coupled with sole- source material specification ensured the highest possible cost of the project. Is it any wonder that residents outside of the FKAA WW service area are annoyed that the Infrastructure Sales Tax specifically intended for full funding of sewers has been applied to the Lower Keys wasteful projects, while they received no rebate of higher sewer assessments than neighbors on the other side of a jurisdictional line?

    • Thanks for your comment. I used to think the wastewater funding disparity was about favoring one geographical area over another. My thinking has evolved. It’s more about diverting taxpayer money into certain pockets.

      I think the conversion to gravity from low pressure in Cudjoe served a couple of purposes. It was an attempt to placate citizens who had very real questions and concerns. More importantly, it was an opportunity to artificially inflate costs and pocket the difference. If the BOCC was truly interested in addressing the citizens concerns, they certainly could have done that without stopping the project. The plant, transmission system and gravity portions would have been unaffected.

      Instead the BOCC decided to go on a wild spending spree. Of course, the only way the BOCC could finance that was by robbing Peter to pay Paul. That’s how you run a Ponzi scheme – not a government. Besides, sooner or later, Peter runs out of money.

      We can expect to see this pattern repeat itself over and over again because it “works”. It certainly doesn’t work from a “good government” perspective. But as far as diverting taxpayer dollars, it’s a huge success. They pouffed away $49 million just like that.

      Carruthers is pushing the same Ponzi scheme model with her proposed Emergency Services Surtax. She claims that by paying for fire and emergency services with a sales tax instead of a property tax, the cost burden will shift from locals to tourists. Untrue. It will actually shift from large property owners (typically hotels) to low-moderate income locals. Carruthers herself will make out quite well under the ESS scheme. And so will her campaign donors.

      Unfortunately, like you say, wastewater is just a part of it. The BOCC/FKAA way of doing business will seep into every aspect of government.

      If the governor is willing to do his part to clean up the FKAA, it will help a lot.