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Canal projects need owner funding for ongoing costs, county says

The need for a new air-curtain weed gate, similar to this recently completed project on Big Pine Key, sparked a call by Monroe County commissioners for tax commitments on any new canal-restoration efforts.
The need for a new air-curtain weed gate, similar to this recently completed project on Big Pine Key, sparked a call by Monroe County commissioners for tax commitments on any new canal-restoration efforts. Monroe County photo

Any new canal-restoration projects undertaken by Monroe County must come with property taxes attached, Monroe County commissioners reaffirmed.

A request for an additional $185,000 to replace an ineffective weed gate at a Big Pine Key demonstration canal and pay for two years’ maintenance of a new air-curtain had commissioners grumbling at their June 15 meeting in Key Largo.

“I have learned something from the demonstration” projects, Commissioner David Rice said. “I have learned that voluntary support for maintenance and things like this won’t work....We’re going to have to impose something.”

That something would be a Municipal Service Taxing Unit, better known as an MSTU, that collects property-tax money from a specific area for projects that benefit the immediate community.

“There are some recalcitrant folks,” said Commissioner George Neugent, an early advocate of spending $5 million of county money on five sites to test technology expected to improve water quality in degraded canals. “This should be on the property owners.”

“This particular area does not even have a homeowners’ association,” said Commissioner Danny Kolhage. “At the end of the project, they still don’t have a way to fund ongoing maintenance.”

County Sustainability Director Rhonda Haag, who oversees the canal test projects, said the county spent nearly $800,000 to remove decayed organic muck five feet deep from the canal between avenues I and J, and to place a six-inch layer of sand on the bottom.

Without replacing the existing weed gate, seaweed will continue to become trapped in the canal and sink to the bottom, recreating the original problem, she said.

“This one, if we don’t do it, is going to fill up with weeds and we’ve wasted money,” Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said.

Commissioners voted, 4-1, to approve the added cost. Kolhage voted against, saying future funding for canal efforts remains “so cloudy and obscure.”

Even creating an MSTU requires “tough political decisions” like deciding whether only canalfront owners would pay or have costs shared among all subdivision owners who may benefit, Kolhage said. “We’re not going to get a flood coming to us and saying, please charge us for the maintenance.”

Neugent said if the canal program expands, communities that willingly agree to support the projects should get first priority.

In other items:

▪ Commissioners approved a climate goal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by an additional 40 percent over the next 14 years, in both county operations and countywide;

▪ Agreed to work toward a county ordinance under the state’s “Granny Flats” law that allows some property-assessment reductions if a portion of a home has been added or renovated to provide space for older parents or grandparents. Twenty-nine Florida counties have adopted similar ordinances.\

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206

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