I wrote here about an astonishing presentation prepared by a Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) staffer. Why so astonishing? For one thing, it’s a tacit admission that the Cudjoe Regional project is a failure. There’s no more pretending that it’s the best, most super-whamodyne project in all the world.
It’s a refreshing change from Monroe County’s non-stop spin. Although, even the county has backed off a little bit. Even they’re not delusional enough to keep patting themselves on the back over this thing.
The presentation has a lot to say about who is at fault for the disappointing outcome and why. The FKAA fails to mention what role they might have played in the whole thing. That might be addressed in another post, but we certainly know that the FKAA does not behave in a way that inspires confidence. Their own shady behavior and lack of transparency has done a lot to exacerbate perception problems and erode public trust.
The FKAA places much of the blame on the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). I cannot disagree. The BOCC has demonstrated time and again that they simply cannot handle capital projects responsibly. Cudjoe Regional, of course, is the prime example.
Here’s what the presentation has to say about the BOCC:
Slide 13: CRWS “Partnership”
This section of the presentation discusses special project challenges. One of those is the FKAA’s “partnership” with Monroe County. There’s no question this is an extremely awkward situation that has been handled poorly by both parties, but especially by the BOCC.
The county does not make solid, ethically sound, fact-based decisions. We know this. They tend to operate on spin and be guided by their own narrow self-interest. It repeatedly results in poor outcomes. Over budget capital projects. Ongoing high kill rate at Upper Keys animal shelter. Angry customers. You can’t argue with results, although the county will try.
FKAA actually has my sympathy here to a certain extent. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be saddled with a “partner” that lacks financial discipline, and has no concept of budgeting. One who makes foolish decisions in the heat of the moment, and cannot appreciate the consequences of those decisions until it is way too late. One who refuses to stand firm in the face of opposition. One who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge and correct mistakes.
Slide 17: Pencils Down
According to the presentation, the BOCC “defunded” the project in 2009. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but apparently all design work on the project stopped in 2009. If true, that was an incredibly stupid move by the BOCC.
The best way to obtain funding for a project IS TO HAVE A PROJECT ON THE SHELF. The cost of design is typically less than 10% of the cost of the project. Starting and stopping is disruptive and expensive.
Slide 18: Issues Began to Pile Up
There are a couple of excellent points on this one.
The heavily subsidized assessments were politically fixed at a “Not to exceed” $5700 per EDU— which did nothing to help the funding problem.
The county and the FKAA are both guilty of piece-mealing projects rather than looking at them as a whole. This has created a raft of problems. Increased project costs for one. Lack of fairness and equity for another.
The point that this slide is making is that the BOCC chose an arbitrary number for assessments. What they should have done was to look at the unincorporated area as a whole, come up with accurate cost estimates and then use that information to determine a reality-based assessment. That’s what the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District did, and the Village of Islamorada and the City of Marathon. It’s what any responsible government entity would do.
To make matters worse, the BOCC actually reduced the assessment by $1,200 and then escalated spending. I have no words. It was just an incredibly bone-headed move.
Here’s the second excellent point.
Public outreach was placed on hold (remember this one!)
If true, this is a terrible idea. Posting updates on their website or holding town hall meetings or speaking at local community meetings doesn’t cost much, if anything. But I don’t see why this is necessarily the BOCC’s fault. The FKAA surely knew by this time, that their “partner” wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. They could have taken it upon themselves to continue with public outreach.
Slide 22: More Issues Had Accumulated
I talked about a lot of what’s on this slide already, but this point, for me, really gets to the heart of the issue.
In spite of the $16,000 per EDU overall projected cost, the assessments were lowered to $4500 per EDU for ALL.
Insane. Irresponsible. Unethical. Zero rational basis. To make matters worse, the cost of the project is now $22,000 per EDU. THE ASSESSMENT STILL STANDS AT $4,500 DESPITE THE MASSIVE ESCALATION IN COST.
The BOCC likes to make decisions based on what is most convenient for them in the moment. They have zero regard for any taxpayer or citizen who is not standing in their immediate line of sight. They will trade county-wide financial viability for fifteen seconds of applause. This stupendously idiotic move was approved by ALL FIVE COMMISSIONERS, including Sylvia Murphy, on October 17, 2012. Here is a link to the resolution.
The BOCC was well aware of the funding disparity impacting Key Largo taxpayers at this time. They were well aware that their vote would worsen the disparity. They voted for it anyway. They knew Murphy would obediently nod along. She’d been doing it for six years by then. A not-constantly-napping District 5 commissioner might have said something like:
I cannot vote “yes” on this assessment reduction until the financial inequities faced by my own constituents are addressed. Here is my proposal.
She couldn’t do that though. Too inconvenient. Thought is required. Plus it might create “bad vibes” with the other commissioners. Can’t have that. Apparently, they’re all supposed to skip around together holding hands.
Slide 32: Politicians Caved! Let the Redesign Begin!, Slide 33: Redesigning in the Middle of Construction.
The BOCC had an opportunity to revisit the design and estimated costs when citizens first started expressing their concerns over the grinder pumps. Did I say opportunity? NO – THE BOCC HAD AN OBLIGATION. All five commissioners failed in that obligation.
It is true that the project was on a tight deadline. But they had already missed the original deadline by two years.
It is true that the state awarded them $30 million on the assumption that Cudjoe Regional was a “shovel ready” project. But the fact is that the wastewater treatment facility was ready to go. That would not have been affected by revisions to the collection system. The same is true for much of the transmission system. And for areas already served by gravity.
At this point, the BOCC could have done the responsible thing – something they should have been doing all along – by reviewing the project to make sure the best, most cost-effective technical solutions had been chosen. They didn’t. Now we taxpayers get to live with the results of the BOCC’s staggering incompetence.
From Slide 33.
Change orders were issued to very happy contractors with significant time and dollar increases.
There were better ways to handle this than to simply accept the contractors high ball estimate. I would argue that the FKAA had a responsibility to make sure the numbers the presented to their “partner” were reasonable and in-line with construction costs elsewhere. Did they do a cost comparison? Did they relay that to the BOCC? I wonder what would happen if I submitted a public records request.
The BOCC, as the guardian of taxpayer money, had the same obligation to verify that the costs were reasonable. We know they didn’t do that. They caved immediately – even to the surprise of the FKAA.
From Slide 32:
After FKAA compiled costs for the gravity system re-design and demonstrated the magnitude of the cost increases: (not ever thinking they would actually go for it!) Monroe County agreed to fund an ADDITIONAL $15 million in gravity conversion.
Again, this is the BOCC playing to their audience for 15 seconds of applause. Unfortunately, the warm-fuzzies didn’t last long. They never do. The lawsuits and the concerns just keep rolling in. And taxpayers will be stuck with the tab for decades – some more than others.
It looks like the BOCC is now swinging to the other extreme. Here’s the thing – you can’t keep saying yes, yes, yes – and then expect people to be happy when you finally say “no”. The BOCC created this monster. They let things get completely out of hand. They failed to educate. They failed to do their own due diligence. They failed to manage expectations. They failed to listen. They failed to understand the big picture. They failed to verify costs. Heck, by their own example the BOCC led Cudjoe Regional citizens to believe money was no object.
At this point, the BOCC can’t throw any more resources at the project. Thanks to the BOCC’s inept handling of the situation, I doubt the Keys will see any more significant money for sewer projects from the state. Who wants the headaches that come with the BOCC’s mismanagement? The state has the ability to opt out. Keys taxpayers do not.
The BOCC has long been inept and ineffective, but since 2012 they’ve reached a new low. It’s long past time for the voters to clean house. Hopefully they’ll have an opportunity to do that, and hopefully they will seize that opportunity wherever it presents itself.