When It Comes to the Sewer Projects, Things Are Bad All Over.
I am the former General Manager of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District. I started at the District in 2005 as a project engineer, and I ran the place from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that I worked for an engineering firm designing and building water and sewer facilities. I began my career as a project accountant in the construction industry. I’m a licensed professional engineer in the states of Florida and New Hampshire. I’ve been in the water and sewer business for a long time, and in the construction business even longer.
I’ve been keeping up on the controversial Cudjoe Regional sewer project. I read the news articles. I read the letters to the editor – many, many letters. The Cudjoe Regional project is a mess. There’s no denying that. It is $43 million over the original bid price. The customers in the service area are justifiably upset over the sudden, unexplained switch to grinder pumps and the failure to address their concerns in an open, transparent manner. They are also concerned about the shallow wells and the malleable influent flow calculations used to justify them.
I agree that some of the decisions made raise questions. For one thing, vacuum sewer was not seriously considered. Vacuum sewer has proven to be an effective and cost-efficient technology throughout the Keys. Why wouldn’t it have been considered for Cudjoe Regional? The deep well is only about $6 million of the total cost escalation. Why fight it? The project is already over budget by tens of millions of dollars. Why not spend another $6 million on something that is environmentally beneficial? According to calculations submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection it would have to be built eventually anyway.
While Cudjoe Regional customers have some valid concerns, they are completely unaware of how well they’ve been treated in a financial sense. Their contribution has remained at a steady $40 million even as the cost of the project escalated from $147 million to $190 million. The state contributed $30 million. At this point, the possibility of additional state money is very uncertain. The remaining $120 million will most likely come from the infrastructure sales tax which is collected county-wide.
Compare that to the situation in Key Largo. Like Cudjoe Regional, Key Largo is an unincorporated area. Key Largo citizens pay all the same taxes as any other citizen in the unincorporated area. Key Largo is, in fact, the second largest generator of the infrastructure sales tax. The Key Largo project cost nearly $170 million. Key Largo customers will contribute $87.3 million and have received $23.1 million from the infrastructure sales tax. This imbalance results in Key Largo taxpayers contributing $1,678 more per EDU than their neighbors in the Cudjoe Regional area. The lack of county funding forces Key Largo taxpayers to over-contribute by $26 million as compared to the other unincorporated areas. Not only is this unethical and unfair, it is bad policy.
It bothers me when Cudjoe Regional citizens point the finger at Rowell’s Marina or the Seven Mile Bridge as wasteful spending while ignoring Higgs Beach, Bernstein Park or the Big Pine Swimming Hole. If a park in Key Largo is “wasteful” then so is a park in Big Pine. Such biased rhetoric is counter-productive and only serves to perpetuate the problems Keys-wide. All taxpayers deserve fair treatment and an equitable level of service.
When it comes to the sewer projects, things are bad all over. Nothing will change unless the citizens of the Keys form a united front to demand the responsible, transparent and fair county government they need and deserve.
Margaret H. Blank, P.E.
To read more of Margaret Blank’s views on Florida Keys’ sewer issues, have a look at her Blog, therealpoop.
6 thoughts on “When It Comes to the Sewer Projects, Things Are Bad All Over.”
Thanks for contributing the perspective from Key Largo, Margaret. You make valid points.
Enlightening information — certain BOCC members are running for the exits and looking for a rock to crawl under.
They definitely seem to be looking for a quick exit from the wastewater debacle they have created. I find that very irritating.
It is very nice to see a knowledgeable PE in the Keys who is able and willing to agree with the PE from Dump the Pumps! There were PEs here who were supportive but were fearful of challenging DEP, FKAA, and the BOCC due to the need for permits and/or work.
Vacuum sewer was way cheaper to install. I have the engineer’s estimates. For an example, a whole island could have had vacuum for the price of just the grinder portion of the island! The sewers would work when the power was out, no easements would have been extorted, and nobody would have to power county machinery in their yard. I have an old email from George Neugent questioning why vacuum was not considered. That was before he became a staunch supporter of grinders. Why? FKAA has had massive inflow on their Baypoint vacuum system during rainy weather. The dummies think a grinder system will not have the same problem, but the sources are identical. The grinder pump salesman is superb at his job- selling grinder pumps. If the results don’t measure up to the sales hype, he can just say, “I guess I was mistaken.” And we pay again for redesign and rebuild, but the infrastructure sales tax is gone to other stuff, so where does the money come from now?
I agree that there should be equality amongst districts. That includes a gravity connection for everyone. I could see distribution back of the excess sewer charges from infrastructure tax revenue. I can see Shark Key paying the same (or more) than Big Coppitt. I cannot support acquisition of new infrastructure being taken from the sewers-first infrastructure tax. Infrastructure that will require supportive property taxes forever to develop and maintain. Infrastructure spending that in one case is not even on County property and pays for renovation of a bridge to a tourist destination that is on a cess pit that was tested and confirmed to be leaking into the surrounding channel waters. Where is their grinder pump? Who cares about whether there is adequate power, since nobody cared about No Name residents’ plight.
As for the swimming hole park on Big Pine, we were happy with it before the county got involved. Just take down the damn gate so people don’t have to drag or carry their kayaks. I am so sorry that I suggested that as a safer place to nurse sick pilot whales than Bogie channel with the bull sharks like the one that ate the baby.
Great comment. Many, many, many have questioned why vacuum wasn’t considered. Another long-lingering question: why did they never consider sending wastewater to the Key West wwtp? That plant is designed for something like 10 mgd. Once the city fixed (most of) its I&I problems, influent flows decreased to 4 mgd. There’s plenty of capacity. My understanding is that the Big Coppitt wwtp has had some problems meeting effluent requirements because of issues with the gravity system. No collection system is perfect. Key Largo had an I&I problem in its vac system early on. You fix it. You don’t just lurch over to some imaginary problem-free system. There is no such animal. It’s about choosing the right tool for the right job and proper monitoring and maintenance. Key Largo has all three – vacuum, gravity and low pressure. You’ve got to do what makes sense. Mmm…..the grinder pump salesman…you may have inspired a blog post. I have absolutely no problem with the Big Pine swimming hole or any of the park projects I mentioned. The point of all that was just to say that the citizens need to stick together. To be quite honest, I believe there has been an intentional effort to sow discord. It is an efffective distraction technique. Divide and conquer. For the record I think George is actually a pretty good commissioner. He is the only one who raised the equity problem as an issue, which I very much appreciate. Sylvia Murphy, Key Largo’s own District 5 commissioner, has been unconcerned and unhelpful. Interesting that. Makes one wonder who is operating what levers.