State Rep. Holly Raschein intends to introduce a bill into the the state Legislature that would exclude the small community of Cross Key from the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District.
District officials say extending the centralized sewer system to the mile marker 112 subdivision is too expensive and the district would not generate enough rate-payer revenue to justify the cost. District General Manager Paul Christian said just trenching a pipe to the area would cost at least $6 million.
“It’s not economically feasible,” Christian said Tuesday.
The intent of the bill is to make the area of about nine residents the responsibility of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, which handles billing for wastewater district rate payers’ water use. Instead of connecting to the centralized system, residents would treat their sewage on site. The decision did not go over well with the roughly one dozen residents who packed into a small meeting room at the district’s mile marker 103 headquarter building on Tuesday.
Some of the residents said the district should have used some of the $17 million grant it received from the state in 2015 to help build a wastewater treatment plant in Cross Key and other remote communities on the 18-Mile Stretch and State Road 905.
“I’m deeply disappointed those funds were not used,” said Raphael Gonzales.
The money, part of a grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection, is designated for capital projects and cannot be used to pay down debt. But the district entered into a deal with Monroe County in 2015 where Key Largo gave the $17 million grant to the county. In exchange, the county is redirecting more of its 1-cent infrastructure sales tax to Key Largo — money that can be used to pay down the wastewater treatment district’s debt.
Christian and the five-member board of commissioners consider paying down the debt on the district’s $160 million centralized sewer system a top priority, and the swap with the county is an effective means of doing so.
Raschein agreed and defended the agreement with the county. “We’d be paying through the nose to this day had the state not provided those funds,” she said.
Cross Key residents must work with the state Department of Health to find acceptable ways of treating wastewater on site. State law gave all the Keys until 2015 to connect to advanced systems in order to stop sewage from polluting nearshore waters and destroying the reef. Technically, Cross Key residents are in violation of the law and could be fined up to $500 a day.
But Bill Brookman, head of the Health Department bureau in the Keys, assured wastewater district commissioners and residents this week that his department will work on finding acceptable on-site treatment options and no fines are immediately forthcoming.
“We’re going to wait for some kind of resolution to be agreed upon before we proceed,” Brookman said. “That is the ultimate problem for me. We’re not ready to fine yet.”
Regardless, Raschein said transferring Cross Key out of the district and to the Aqueduct Authority — the details of which have not yet been worked out by either the district or the FKAA — is the quickest way to to finally bring all the Keys into compliance with the state.
“We are under a time crunch right now,” she said. “We’re supposed to be done.”
Raschein said the move is also in the best interest of those living in Cross Key. “This is a difficult situation and we’re trying to find an easy solution,” she said.
Commissioner Sue Heim said the district has an obligation to the majority of ratepayers who she and her colleagues on the dais said should not have to subsidize a wastewater connection to a handful of homes. “Beyond this room, there are people in favor of this,” she said.
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204