On county level, sewers still in the forefront

Restoring degraded canals has come a priority for Monroe County.
Restoring degraded canals has come a priority for Monroe County.

Monroe County waded through another year of wastewater issues in 2015, ordering an unplanned $7 million well and getting stiffed on anticipated state money for sewers.

By Dec. 31, a large majority of Monroe County will have had made a state-imposed deadline for connecting homes to wastewater systems that more effectively protect nearshore waters from leaky septic tanks. The last large piece -- the $188 million Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System in the Lower Keys, to serve about 9,000 residences and businesses -- is nearing completion.

After complaints and lawsuits filed by Lower Keys residents and homeowner groups, county commissioners this year conceded that a planned shallow-water injection well for treated sewage dug 120 feet deep at the main Lower Keys treatment station might not be adequate to safeguard the marine environment.

A new well, going down about 2,000 feet and costing more than $7 million, was approved. At year's end, the county was finalizing settlement agreements with groups that had sued over the issue.

Officials in county government and local municipalities were hopeful of a $50 million payment toward wastewater efforts from the state budget, the third installment of a $200 million pledge made by the state. However, health-care disputes in Tallahassee concluded with an abrupt end to the Florida Legislature's session without approving the Keys money.

Also dashed in that 2015 legislative fracas were expectations that the environmentally sensitive Keys would receive a significant share of money from Amendment 1, a new conservation fund overwhelming approved in a statewide referendum in 2014.

Monroe County received another financial disappointment in July when courts approved an $18.7 billion settlement with BP for five Gulf of Mexico states stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that stained gulf waters and chased tourists from the Keys.

Early projections indicated the county's share could reach up to $20 million under the RESTORE Act for local economic harm. Instead, Monroe County will receive an estimated $5 million to $6 million, spread out over 15 years in annual payments of around $400,000.

"It's not the kind of money we were looking for but it is money," County Administrator Roman Gastesi said.

On the positive side for unincorporated county economics, an overall fiscal-year budget of $416.9 million was approved in September with virtually no public opposition. Less than $80 million will be raised by property taxes; the rest will come from fees, grants and the like.

In other Monroe County issues from 2015:

  • Commissioners nixed the Ragnar Relay's planned February 2016 footrace through the Keys. The event, run in four previous years, was popular with about 6,000 people (and its hundreds of support vehicles) who take part -- but not with Lower Keys residents who cited extreme traffic congestion on U.S. 1 during peak holiday season.

  • Earlier in the year, a powerboat regatta planned for October off Key Largo was scratched when commissioners overturned a pending $10,000 allocation for promotion, agreeing with opponents that the regatta was not suitable for Florida Bay waters.

  • Key Largo business owners in February pleaded for Monroe County to take up their cause in a dispute with the Florida Department of Transportation over contested right of way along U.S. 1. Wary of getting involved in a lengthy court battle, commissioners declared the county had no interest in the 20-foot-wide strip of land that runs for several miles.

  • Citing a real-estate recovery that raised home prices and rents, commissioners restarted efforts to address an affordable-housing problem in the Keys with a new advisory board -- just the latest in numerous such panels created over the years. The housing group has been meeting monthly.

  • In July, commissioners gave direction to its legal staff to draft a county ordinance that would impose a civil fine for some misdemeanor marijuana-possession cases rather than a criminal charge. At year's end, details of the proposal -- like who would collect unpaid fines -- were still being sorted.

  • The county completed its first efforts in a $7 million pilot program that seeks to test techniques to restore water quality in degraded canals. Early results were promising but costs were higher than expected. Wide-scale efforts to restore all of the county's poor-quality canals could cost several hundred million dollars. No source of such funding was apparent.