The Florida Keys Stewardship Act is now officially law. It’s a blessing but a mixed one. As always, it is subject to interference and manipulation by the usual suspects. The Keys didn’t get everything they asked for but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the situation being what it is.
As beneficial as the Florida Keys Stewardship Act may be, there is one thing the Governor could do that would have even more of a positive impact:
DEAL EFFECTIVELY WITH THE ISSUES ON THE FLORIDA KEYS AQUEDUCT AUTHORITY BOARD.
The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) board does not answer to the ratepayers of the Keys. They operate without any meaningful oversight, despite collecting millions of dollars in public money each year. The citizens of the Keys have tried to remedy this situation twice. Legislation was introduced in 2005 and 2013 that would have allowed for an elected board. Both of these efforts were shut down at the state level. Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the legislation in 2006. In May 2013, a similar bill died in Sen. John Thrasher’s rules committee.
The events of 2013 are especially discouraging. In November 2012, the voters of the Keys overwhelmingly supported a referendum calling for an elected board – 70% in favor. The citizens could not have been more clear. The state slammed the door on them. And the rest is history. Subsequently, spending on Cudjoe Regional spun quickly out of control. The first $20 million change order was unanimously approved by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) in November 2013 (see Item G46 of the minutes).
Given the lack of oversight, the end result is predictable. The Cudjoe Regional sewer project is now $49 million over budget. It is needlessly controversial and has spawned multiple lawsuits – some involving state agencies. There are also reports of excessive start-up problems. It’s a failure on every level. Big Coppitt, was also very expensive. And is experiencing on-going operational problems. People have raised questions about Key Haven as well. That’s another research project on my list.
At this point, Gov. Rick Scott is the only one who can provide any sort of relief to the ratepayers of the Keys. He is responsible for appointing FKAA board members. The citizens of the Keys have no choice but to depend on the governor to appoint board members who are free of significant, ongoing conflicts of interest and who are willing to follow the rules of the agency they govern.
As it stands today, there are two pressing issues to be addressed.
- Bob Dean’s residency issue. FKAA staff was supposed to have forwarded this matter to the governor’s office for review. It is unclear whether that actually happened. There hasn’t been a single peep out of the governor’s office. I hope this matter won’t be sent down the memory hole to die. It’s too important and the stakes are too high.
- Richard Toppino’s conflict of interest issues. This situation just gets worse and worse. The more I dig, the more I find. The worst part is that the FKAA is evasive (and sometimes outright dishonest) about matters having to do with Toppino. They downplayed the amount of work the Toppino companies have done with the agency. They lied when they said they don’t keep track of subcontractors. They tried to suppress a bid tab that shows Toppino benefited from a re-bid on Big Coppitt.
I hope that Gov. Rick Scott will take these issues seriously and do something to address them. Scott was not involved in the two situations where the state killed the option of an elected board, but he has been asked to look into Bob Dean’s residency issues and he did appoint Richard Toppino. He’s got an opportunity (dare I say an obligation?) to make much-needed improvements.
The citizens of the Keys have spoken loud and clear. They want the FKAA to be run by an elected board that is accountable to them. What might have happened if Jeb Bush hadn’t vetoed Rep. Sorenson’s bill back in 2005? Or if Rep. Raschein’s bill hadn’t died in Sen. Thrasher’s Rules Committee? Would Big Coppitt have cost over $21,000 per EDU? Would it be failing repeatedly to meet effluent requirements? Would Cudjoe Regional have gone $49 million over budget? Would it have been dogged by controversy and lawsuits? We’ll never know. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.
The best way to see what might have been is to look at a parallel situation. Like the FKAA, the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District is a special district tasked with the responsibility of installing a central sewer system in the Keys. Unlike the FKAA, the District is governed by an elected board that is directly accountable to the citizens they serve. The District serves about as many wastewater EDU’s as the FKAA does, but their project costs about 40% less on a per EDU basis. Aside from the occasional hiccup, the District’s system is trouble-free, while Big Coppitt in particular has experienced ongoing problems.
Why should the FKAA be governed by an elected board? Because it works. The District’s track record proves it. The voters know this. That’s why they overwhelmingly support it.
Unfortunately, certain elements at the state level have made it clear that their sympathy lies with the status quo and not with the citizens of the Keys. Yes, an elected board works but the state chose to override the will of the voters. And that has cost everyone.
I know that Gov. Scott is fiscally responsible and cost-conscious. I know that he supports the Keys. There’s nothing he can do about the two failed bills. That’s water under the bridge. There’s nothing he can do about the taxpayer money that’s already been squandered. But he can do something to improve the present situation on the FKAA board.