letter to the editor

We Have Met the Enemy And He Is Us


Dear Editor,

How did the sanitary sewer project go so wrong? It all goes back to the one cent sales tax extension that was used to pay for the sewer system. This is an unconventional way to finance a local sewer system, but it eliminated the need for an environmental assessment plan that would have been carefully reviewed by the Corps of Engineers.

There was widespread public support for the sales tax extension. It looked like the ballot would easily pass, since it was sold as the best way to finance a sewer system, because the costs could be passed on to vacationers spending money here, instead of federal bonds that would be paid directly by residents of Monroe County. Federal money would have also invited federal scrutiny of the impact to the environment of this project.

Most counties would never be able to pull off a one-cent sales tax to fund a sewer project. But it was easy in this case; and it eliminated the need for a full-blown environmental assessment by the Corps.

It was so easy to pass the sales tax extension, in fact, that some commissioners on the BOCC became hungry to use the sales tax money for other pet projects. Since some districts already had sewers; and other districts already had a substantial amount of sewer work completed. So there was no way to distribute the sales tax money equally among the county commissioners. Now the BOCC, after selling the one-cent sales tax to the public to be used to finance a top-rate sewer system, added some language to the ballot that allowed them to distribute the money to the other commissioner’s pet projects, like buying marinas or helicopters.

The ballot was supposed to read “Shall the existing one cent infrastructure sales tax be extended to 2033 (it otherwise expires in 2018) with the proceeds used for wastewater facilities?” But language was added to divvy up the money: “and only if those wastewater facilities are completed, or fully funded, recreation and conservation lands, marinas, courthouse parking, offices roads, bridges, airports, libraries, piers, auditoriums, rip rap, seawalls, solid waste, police, fire, facilities, land acquisition, storm water, or any public purpose authorized by law?”

Anyone that bothered to read the ballot would know who had added the extra language, it reads like a Christmas wish list submitted by each commissioner.

But since the Cudjoe Regional Sewer was the last big piece of the sewer system, and it was basically in only one commissioner’s district, there was now an overwhelming incentive for the BOCC to fund the cheapest sewer possible in unincorporated Monroe, so more of the sales tax money could be used for “wish list items” by other commissioners in their own districts. This is how the grinder pump system was born. When the grinder plan was finally was unveiled by the FKAA at a public meeting on Big Pine in 2014, (there was no public meeting to hear concerns before a decision as made) there was a predictable public outcry. The FKAA director put the blame on the BOCC at that meeting. He claimed that the FKAA would have preferred to use a gravity system, but that the BOCC had tied his hands.

The decision to change the plans and redesign Doctor’s Arm and some other areas again for gravity was a political decision. Too many voters on grinders in one area could give the outcry a voice; so 1,500 homes were switched back to a gravity system. This was indeed a costly decision by the BOCC; but cost was not a consideration in this last minute change of design.

It was no secret that federal scrutiny over the construction of this project in such an environmentally-sensitive federally-protected endangered-animal habitat could wreak havoc on costs, and if the FKAA were to let the feds scrutinize the engineering of their hybrid gravity-grinder pump sewer system, it might never be affordable. So the FKAA prepared a draft environmental assessment plan, affixed a phony US Corps of Engineers logo and put it on their website to make the public believe that the Corps of Engineers has vetted their scheme. But it was a phony environmental assessment. The Corps did not review the sewer system, and a draft environmental assessment review by the feds was intentionally sidestepped. I think because it would have never passed a federal review.

The real damage of the sewer system is likely yet unknown, and could cause irreparable damage to the Keys ecosystem. For instance, consider the 23 wells drilled through the ancient Miami Limestone base of Big Pine Key that could forever destroy the natural freshwater lens that has allowed the Key Deer, the Marsh Rabbit and several other threatened species to avoid extinction in times of drought. Do you think that the feds would have let this happen if a proper environmental assessment review were allowed to proceed?

Before the system has even been switched on, there seems to almost be an expectation of a disaster. I believe that our worst fears are yet to be realized. So who is to blame? The FKAA, who floated a phony Corps of Engineers Environmental study and hatched a hybrid system, largely engineered by grinder pump salesmen; or the BOCC, who dealt out the unincorporated areas of Monroe in a smoke-filled back room in exchange of a portion of the money that was supposed to pay for the sewers?

Perhaps it was the residents of Monroe who voted for the sales tax extension without carefully reading the ballot are to blame. There is no free lunch; especially in the Keys.

Marc Herbener,

Big Pine Key

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2 thoughts on “We Have Met the Enemy And He Is Us

  1. Really, good thoughtful letter. Taxpayers Keyswide got hosed on the sales tax and the wastewater system. Couple brief points:

    1. The sales tax passed because the commissioners talked it up. They promised everything to everybody up and down the Keys.

    2. I agree with you on the Army Corps money. They definitely didn’t want the scrutiny that comes with that funding source. Yet in 2013 the county’s federal lobbyist snuck in some language that could have tanked it – or at least slow it way down. Why? To this day I don’t know if it was malicious or “just” extreme incompetence. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.

    3. I think people are right to be concerned about the Cudjoe Regional system. The FKAA is not forthcoming when they have operational problems. Unfortunately, its on the affected public to speak up about what they see. I’m concerned about those lift stations with multiple E-Ones and operating costs.

    4. I’m concerned about operational costs for the county’s Lower and Middle Keys wastewater projects.

    4. County’s long-term borrowing has increased by over $160 million since 2012. Huge jump. I’d love to know how the BOCC expects to pay that down. They’re still promising the world when it comes to capital projects.

  2. It was astonishing to watch the federal agencies distance themselves from involvement in the Cudjoe system. They still had clear responsibilities that they shirked, assigning all their oversight to FDEP who was a big part of the problem. Why in the world would senior officials of FDEP (up to and including Dr. Amadi) tell FKAA and the County engineers to use ONLY E-one brand grinder pumps if an alternative to gravity was to be considered? Even in DOAH court in late 2014, FDEP was not able to identify a single successful large scale collection system using E-one pumps. They pointed to a septic tank effluent pumping system as an example- in a community that had analyzed and rejected not only E-one, but all grinder pumps.
    One possible inaccuracy observed in this letter to editor is that the construction wells are supposedly grouted in as a requirement of abandonment, and in any event are cased to below the fresh water lens. Their danger is during construction unless mitigated by ample rainfall. As the saying goes, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” So far the FKAA has been extraordinarily lucky, but just like at the casino, the odds are against them that their luck will hold. It will be abundantly obvious when their luck runs out, but it is the citizens and environment who will lose the most.

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