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.