Kolhage: No more money for canal restoration

Too many sickly canals and not enough space for affordable housing sparked debate at the Monroe County Commission's budget review Monday.

Commissioners, meeting in Key West, gave preliminary approval to a proposed $417 million budget and related property-tax rate.

Mayor Danny Kolhage objected to spending an additional $2 million for the county's $5 million canal restoration program, which aims to install a handful of test systems that may improve water quality in "impaired" canals.

"I don't intend to put another single dollar into this with my vote," Kolhage said.

He suggested costs could rise to half a billion dollars if the county tries to restore all 141 of the problem canal systems in the unincorporated Keys -- more than a fourth of the total 512 canal systems. That could equal or exceed the cost of the county's mandatory sewage-treatment programs, he said.

"Every single resident in Monroe County has to use the wastewater system," Kolhage said, "but not every single resident lives on a canal. It's a huge difference."

County Administrator Roman Gastesi said the pilot canal projects may result in more funding from state or federal agencies.

A $1.36 million backfilling project recently completed in a Key Largo canal shows highly promising results, the administrator said.

"The majority of neighbors there are very happy," Gastesi said. "We can't say it works since we don't have water-quality tests [yet] but to the naked eye, there's no doubt."

"I think [the Florida Legislature] will give us some money," Gastesi said. "I can't say when but eventually they will, I think."

Commissioner George Neugent said a combination of local, state and federal money probably will be needed to rectify a known source of nearshore water degradation. "I don't see the county picking up the whole tab."

The spending plan could be fine-tuned for a lower tax rate reduced during further budget talks in August and September.

Commissioner Heather Carruthers urged the county to set aside funding -- $2 million was discussed -- to purchase buildable land for affordable housing. The need is particularly acute in the Lower Keys, which cannot rely on mainland commuters to fill low- or moderate-income jobs, she said.

As the real-estate market improves, Carruthers said, more workers will be forced to move to the mainland.

"At some point, we need to take extraordinary measures to meet the needs out there," Carruthers said. "The longer we wait, the more expensive land becomes and the more people who make our community run will leave."

Neugent said private businesses that pay modest wages and other government agencies must be willing to join affordable-housing efforts.

Commissioners stopped short of approving funding but directed staff to seek possible sources of housing land-buy money.

County Sheriff Rick Ramsay received early approval for his agency's $45.38 million budget. Raises of 2 percent and additional pension costs forced a $507,343 increase, he said.

Ramsay said one new detective's slot is needed for the Key Largo and Islamorada area. "We are seeing an increase of crime related to Dade County coming in and committing crimes," Ramsay said. "In the Upper Keys, my detectives have too much of a case load."

A new part-time crossing guard for Big Pine Key also was approved.