The Reality on Wastewater and 2010 Compliance

The political climate is heating up as we come down to the runoff election for a prominent Village Council seat – just to keep voters, property owners and residents abreast of the issues I am posting a letter recently received via email by the Florida Keys Board of Realtors from candidate David Boerner, Mayor of Islamorada, Village of Islands. Wastewater is a pressing issue here in the Keys as we try to meet State and Federal mandates.

“In the recent days my opponent has sent out letters to, and visited with, Realtors, Condominium Managers and Package Plant Operators in an attempt to frighten them into wavering from our steady course of action to fund and construct wastewater facilities for Islamorada through discussions of impending fines, liens and orders to quit operations. This has included statements that go against the actions and efforts that the Village has been undertaking to achieve an affordable solution to our wastewater problems, including ignoring the significant steps that have been taken in the last few months and the gains achieved.

  • Gains such as the turning around of the attitude from the Corps of Engineers on resisting a local sewer project to actively participating in a reef restoration project with the $100 million appropriated by the Federal Government for this purpose after our joint trip by the mayors and wastewater managers from all the Keys to Washington last October;
  • Or the designation of the Council also last October of our next phase of our Village wide wastewater program to Indian Waterways, Indian Mound, and Lower Matecumbe;
  • Or the $3.8 million grant for the 75% EPA funded “decentralized” alternative system we are currently underway with on Lower Matecumbe;
  • Or the projected discussion for late April to define the process for achieving the final phases of our plans in Upper Matecumbe, Windley and lower Plantation Keys;
  • Or the county-wide schedule of all wastewater projects with costs and completion schedules, including Islamorada, that was submitted as requested on January 31st to Representative Stan Mayfield of the Environmental Resources Committee of the State Legislature memorializing our commitment to achieving the Advanced Wastewater Treatment Standard in a timely manner;
  • Or the release of a $500,000 federal grant to Islamorada in March for our system at Indian Mound/Indian Waterways on Plantation Key now in the planning stage;
  • Or the progress of the joint efforts by all the wastewater entities in the County including Islamorada as a proactive participant at the Florida Keys Water Quality Improvement Program meeting on March 7th with the Army Corps of Engineers to set the stage for the next series of Federal grants;
  • Or that Islamorada has already provided “pipes in the ground” to over 1,300 homes and businesses with Phases 1 and 2 of the North Plantation Key project, which is now operating successfully in the initial phase and ready to be expanded soon.

Rhetoric is easy, but it must be founded in fact, and the facts are that it takes a lot of hard work on the part of many participants to work together instead of trying to destroy by conjecture. Islamorada is working on the solutions to our wastewater issues – and in doing so we are working on cost effective solutions that provide a timely response in a manner we can afford, instead of just simple “knee-jerk” reactions to our problems.

I don’t think there is any real disagreement that the water quality surrounding the Keys has declined significantly and it is necessary to act to protect our waters, reefs and back country before the decline is irreversible. As a long time diver and angler in the Keys, I as well as many others have watched this decline with great concern, and it is documented by several noted scientific studies. A significant contributor to that decline is from pollution, specifically Nitrogen and Phosphorous. There are many identified sources of the pollution affecting us: drainage from the Mississippi and other major rivers draining in to the Gulf; the outfall from the heavily fertilized sugar operations above the Everglades which pour vast quantities of Nitrogen and Phosphorous into Florida Bay that was to have been corrected by the now stymied Everglades Restoration program; stormwater runoff after rain events that wash Nitrogen and Phosphorous laden fertilizers, organic compounds and animal fecal matter into the bay and ocean; and one which we can control, partially treated effluent discharges from cesspits, septic tanks and package plants throughout the Keys. It is this last item which has brought us to the installation of central sewers and treatment plants as a proposed cost effective method of removing pollutants generated by our residents and visitors from our near shore waters.

To meet the extra level of treatment required to remove the Nitrogen and Phosphorous compounds from our effluent, the state and federal governments have ordered the Florida Keys to treat our wastewater to a standard double the rest of the country. This “Advanced Wastewater Treatment” (AWT) standard was mandated because we are surrounded by some of the most pristine water in the country and a living reef protected by a National Marine Sanctuary. Throughout the rest of the country the standard level of treatment required is a “20-20” standard; that is 20 mg/l of suspended solids and 20 mg/l of Biological Oxygen Demand (organics), with no requirement for Nitrogen of Phosphorous removal. For the Keys, the AWT standard is “5-5-3-1”: 5 mg/l suspended solids, 5 mg/l BOD (organics), plus 3 mg/l nitrogen and 1 mg/l phosphorous. Unfortunately this special designation and level of treatment adds between 25% and 40% to the cost of treatment and is compounded by the unique additional costs of collection systems cut into our coral rock islands. In recognition of these exceptional costs, Tallahassee and Washington promised to assist us through grant funding – grant funding which paid for 59% of the cost of our first wastewater project on Plantation Key.

Unfortunately the government bodies that mandated the higher standards and agreed to partner with the Village to meet those standards seem to have developed a memory loss on their financial commitments to us as their own financial conditions have fallen onto troubled waters with the reduced state taxes from the collapsing real estate market in Florida and the exorbitant cost of the war on Iraq.

It has been my job through traveling to Washington with the other mayors and managers of the wastewater entities in the county and working with our state representatives to remind our “partners” of their promises of much needed grant funds. Because of meetings I attended in Washington with our federal congressmen and women, and our strong relationship with State Representative Saunders and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, we are benefiting from a renewed commitment to share the financial burden… This is evidenced by a 75% EPA funded demonstration grant on Lower Matecumbe Key and the $500,000 Corps of Engineers participation we received in March for our next wastewater project on Plantation Key.

We are also continuing our efforts to obtain the original $100 million Corps of Engineers appropriation. Washington now recognizes Keys wastewater project as the reef protection and restoration mission that it is, rather than just another local sewer project. With the pending submission of our Project Cooperative Agreement to the Corps of Engineers, and the direct involvement this year by Senators Martinez and Nelson as well as Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, there is for the first time real movement in releasing the appropriated funds to the Keys. In addition Representative Saunders continues to seek a $200 million state bond to assist us even through the lean times in the State budget by directing a continuing annual revenue stream to support the bond recognizing the commitment to participate in the protection of the state waters of Florida that are a treasure to the entire state and visited by over 4 million visitors every year. At the same time we must work with our representatives in Washington and Tallahassee as they have requested to help them keep the pressure on their respective legislative bodies to fund these projects. It would be easy for Congress and the Legislature to walk away from these commitments if we were to say “never-mind, we’ll take care of this ourselves”. It is too easy for them to view the residents of the Keys as all being wealthy, living in million dollar homes, and this as a local problem rather than a state of federal issue. As our representatives have pointed out, if we seek too early waivers on the commitment to the AWT standards in 2010, or relax from our efforts to obtain the assistance already committed and fund this ourselves, our requests would be easily disposed of.

There will still be a share carried by the citizens as it was on the North Plantation Key project. And we need to be ready to continue the installation of wastewater facilities by the mid 2010 mandate. However, a $115 million bond put on the backs of our citizens without beneficial use to fund the entire cost, including the significant additional cost to achieve those Advanced Wastewater Treatment standards, at an exorbitant cost is not the answer. Maybe because my opponent’s business and personal interests are in Marathon which is decidedly denser and has a significantly lower construction cost per EDU than Islamorada, he seems to have not considered the harmful impacts such a scheme will have on our friends and neighbors, or considered the efforts already underway by all of the wastewater entities working together in Monroe County to achieve equitable wastewater funding.

Furthermore, unlike the rosy projections that were incorrectly put forth on this bond issue, our Village Financial Director and our Rate Consultants advised Council the lowest expected interest rate on the proposed 30 year municipal bond is 5.5%, not 4%. And such a bond also includes an initial $3,405,000 issuance cost, resulting in a projected $1,095 annual assessment ($91.25/month) and a total repayment of $24,360,952; not the $878 assessment ($73.20/month) unfairly shown to the Water Quality Committee.

In any event, the bond idea would result in almost 2-1/2 times the $447.51 annual assessment our residents are paying in the original North Plantation Key service area. When you combine the bonded capital costs with the additional costs of connecting to the sewers and abandoning existing septic tanks or package plants, and the monthly utility bill to operate the system that is already in the range of $60/month (and is projected to rise significantly), you end up with an irrational undertaking. The idea of a bond to fund 100% of the cost of sewers totally on the backs of the rate payers is unreasonable and defeats the concept that it is cheaper to provide central sewer than having our residents and businesses meeting the Best Alternative Treatment (BAT) requirements on their own.

Even without the extra financing costs of bond funding the $115M cost for central sewers spread over the remaining 7,500 Equivalent Dwelling Units (EDUs) would result in an assessment to each homeowner in excess of $15,000 without any grant funding. This greatly exceeds the $5,676 assessment charged for each household in the North Plantation Key wastewater project that waited for grant funding. With the approximately $6,000 per home connection fee for a plumber to hook your home to the system this even exceeds the typical cost of individually converting your home to a 2010 compliant Best Available Technology (BAT) system, let alone the additional $70-$100/month utility fee to the Village to operate the system. This upside-down cost differential between individual compliance required by the 2010 mandate and a non-grant funded Village provided central sewer becomes even more lop-sided with businesses and condos that use package plants that can convert to 2010 compliance at a much lower cost than connecting to a 100% user funded central sewer system.

The question then becomes: if it’s cheaper to meet the 2010 mandate individually than through a central sewer system constructed without any state and federal participation, why go with central sewers? The answer becomes obvious that the expensive central sewer system required for Islamorada’s relatively low density compared to areas north and south of us is only practical with grant funding; because only with the reduced cost through grant funding will such a system save residents and business money over individual compliance (A common misunderstanding is that Village government is responsible for compliance. Under the state law the 2010 mandate is on the individual homeowners and businesses to meet the enhanced wastewater standard by 2010, not the Village government. The Village’s participation is only as a municipal service provider to help reduce this cost through the economy of scale and grant equalization.)

Instead we are investigating and using other tools already provided to us by the state and federal government. Beside grants, which we continue to pursue, State Revolving Fund loans are available. The SRF was put in place for this purpose and avoids the large upfront costs of municipal bonds as well as requirements to pay interest on the full amount borrowed from day one. More importantly, SRF loans are attained at the much lower state subsidized 2.25% rate. And that is significant.

Additionally, the Council has unanimously supported the idea of Commissioner Neugent for a voter approved penny sales tax to supplement the burden of wastewater funding. The penny tax would shift approximately 50% of the share onto the 4 million visitors to the Keys each year.

There are also other cost effective alternatives to traditional municipal central sewers that have already been enacted by the Village and remain available to solving our wastewater issues. When one of Islamorada’s largest motels went through a redevelopment several years ago the council imposed a requirement that not only would their package plant be brought into 2010 compliance, but it would also be sized large enough to serve the neighborhood around the motel. The decentralized system planned for Lower Matecumbe combines a modular, central treatment of the effluent from basic treatment systems (septic tank) at each homeowner’s property. This concept has the possibility of being expanded to a similar interconnection of larger package plants. There is no specific requirement that the Village must provide a central sewer system, only that the individual homeowner and businesses comply with the 2010 discharge requirements. It is the job instead of the Village to provide a more cost effective system for compliance, and that is through the continued efforts of all that are involved throughout the county seeking supplemental funding and support for our residents.

The Village has also provided service to over 1,300 connections in Phases 1 and 2 of the North Plantation Key project, and with completion of Phase 3 in the Indian Waterways/Indian Mound area of Plantation Key with the current grant from the Corps of Engineers, will provide service to approximately 20% of Islamorada. With the inclusion of the decentralized system now underway on Lower Matecumbe, and the designated next phase of our central system on the balance of Lower Matecumbe, over one third of the connections in Islamorada will be provided. This compares to Marathon which is just now putting their own first pipes in the ground like we did several years ago at Plantation Key Colony, and Key Largo which has completed their first two phases of thirteen, and is still operating on a temporary plant which has had difficulties in meeting the 2010 discharge standards.

While it is fair to say that it is unlikely that Islamorada, Marathon, Key Largo or the unincorporated areas in the Lower Keys will be completed by the July 2010 deadline, significant progress is being shown by all parties, and Islamorada has participated with the other entities in the county to provide the county wide implementation schedule requested by the Florida Legislature. The Florida Department of Health (DOH) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) are state agencies charged with enforcement of Fl Statute 99-395 which established the 2010 mandate, and are acting as required to provide notices of required compliance. They do not have the authority to waive this requirement. That remains with the state legislature, which meets two more times again in 2009 and 2010 before the July 2010 compliance date, and who through Representative Mayfield’s Committee on Environmental Appropriations are monitoring our progress. This is of course the same legislative body whose state agencies committed to grant funding towards the additional expense required to meet the higher AWT standard for protecting the state and federal waters surrounding the Keys, and has fallen short. Our local representative continues to make them aware of this. It is our part to continue our efforts towards compliance, to maintain our cooperation with the state and federal authorities on sharing project funding, and to continue to strive towards providing a cost effective wastewater system to our residents and businesses through this cooperation. Alternatively, if the Village cannot provide this cost effective solution to wastewater compliance through these continuing efforts, the imposition of a 100% local assessment funded wastewater system at a higher cost than individual compliance makes little sense.

We cannot burden our residents and businesses with carrying the entire cost of the wastewater funding, especially if financing comes in at a higher cost than what residents would pay to put in their own systems or businesses to upgrade their existing package plants.

Most importantly, we must continue our cooperation with Tallahassee and Washington to find reasonable methods to share and reduce this burden so we can achieve the higher level of treatment required to protect our waters. With continued hard work, we can meet the mandate and still afford to live and run our businesses in the village. I will continue my work with our state and federal representatives to make this happen.”

Stay Informed on all the issues and learn about all the candidates – be sure to get out, be heard and VOTE.

(This is not an endorsement of any one candidate)

“PLEASE CONTACT LISA FRINS AT 305-522-1479 OR EMAIL ME AT lisafrins(at)florida-keys-homes(dotted)com