“Wacky” BOCC Can’t Even Buy Respect

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Who put this guy in charge?

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.

 

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4 Responses to “Wacky” BOCC Can’t Even Buy Respect

  1. Nancy Williams says:

    Key Largo Wastewater District had $17 million dollars from a grant but were restricted from using it to pay off old debt. They petitioned the Governor to allow them to use the money for old debts, but the Governor refused. So Key Largo “donated” the $17 million to the Monroe County BOCC. The BOCC turned around and gave $17 million in cash back to Key Largo with “no restrictions”. Would you call this “money laundering” by Key Largo and the BOCC? This money could have been used in the Cudjoe project to give everyone gravity systems instead of the “second-class” grinder pumps that will not be operable in any area that storm surge from salt water. This will leave hundreds of residences without service until the grinder pumps are replaced and this could take months.

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    • M_Blank says:

      The $17 million was part of the Mayfield Grant, which was specifically written to allow for the refinancing of completed projects. For whatever reason, the governor and the legislature chose to disallow this use despite how the law was written. Why would they do that? I imagine they had some encouragement from our friends at the county and the FKAA, who seem well connected in Tallahassee.

      After all, a bill calling for an elected board for the FKAA somehow went down in flames even though it was approved by 70% of Keys voters. I would imagine that took a decent amount of lobbying fire power.

      Would I call the swap “money laundering”? No. It’s not illegal. It’s not being done in secret. In fact, the county and the District held a bond validation hearing. It’s all public and done within the bounds of the law.

      I personally would prefer that the state money be used as it was originally intended. It was the state’s decision that forced the swap. In fact, the swap was originally suggested by a member of the governors staff.

      Your neighbors in Key Largo have been treated unfairly by the county. They will pay $2000 more per EDU than their neighbors in Cudjoe Regional.

      The folks in Cudjoe Regional have also been treated unfairly by the county and the FKAA. I’ve written about both situations extensively on the blog. I do not approve of the way either community has been treated.

      Certain members of the BOCC habitually play one area of the Keys against another. I hope you will be wary of falling into that trap. It is sad that you seem so anxious to take money away from your neighbors in KL. They are taxpayers just like those in CR and deserve fair treatment.

      Most of the people I speak to in the Lower Keys support the idea of funding equity. I hope that you will someday come around to that position as well.

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  2. Marc Herbener says:

    It all goes back to the one cent sales tax extension that was used to pay for the sewer system. This is an unconventional way to finance a local sewer system, but it eliminated the need for an environmental assessment plan that would have been carefully reviewed by the Corps of Engineers.

    There was widespread public support for the sales tax extension. It looked like the ballot would easily pass, since it was sold as the best way to finance a sewer system, because the costs could be passed on to vacationers spending money here, instead of federal bonds that would be paid directly by residents of Monroe County. Federal money would have also invited federal scrutiny of the impact to the environment of this project.

    Most counties would never be able to pull off a one-cent sales tax to fund a sewer project. But it was easy in this case; and it eliminated the need for a full-blown environmental assessment by the Corps.

    It was so easy to pass the sales tax extension, in fact, that some commissioners on the BOCC became hungry to use the sales tax money for other pet projects. Since some districts already had sewers; and other districts already had a substantial amount of sewer work completed. So there was no way to distribute the sales tax money equally among the county commissioners. Now the BOCC, after selling the one-cent sales tax to the public to be used to finance a top-rate sewer system, added some language to the ballot that allowed them to distribute the money to the other commissioner’s pet projects, like buying marinas or helicopters.

    So the ballot was supposed to read “Shall the existing one cent infrastructure sales tax be extended to 2033 (it otherwise expires in 2018) with the proceeds used for wastewater facilities?” But language was added to divvy up the money: “and only if those wastewater facilities are completed, or fully funded, recreation and conservation lands, marinas, courthouse parking, offices roads, bridges, airports, libraries, piers, auditoriums, rip rap, seawalls, solid waste, police, fire, facilities, land acquisition, storm water, or any public purpose authorized by law?”

    Anyone that bothered to read the ballot would know who had added the extra language, it reads like a Christmas wish list submitted by each commissioner.

    But since the Cudjoe Regional Sewer was the last big piece of the sewer system, and it was basically in only one commissioner’s district, there was now an overwhelming incentive for the BOCC to fund the cheapest sewer possible in unincorporated Monroe, so more of the sales tax money could be used for “wish list items” by other commissioners in their own districts. This is how the grinder pump system was born. When the grinder plan was finally was unveiled by the FKAA at a public meeting on Big Pine in 2014, (there was no public meeting to hear concerns before a decision as made) there was a predictable public outcry. The FKAA director put the blame on the BOCC at that meeting. He claimed that the FKAA would have preferred to use a gravity system, but that the BOCC had tied his hands.

    The decision to change the plans and redesign Doctor’s Arm and some other areas again for gravity was a political decision. Too many voters on grinders in one area could give the outcry a voice; so 1,500 homes were switched back to a gravity system. This was indeed a costly decision by the BOCC; but cost was not a consideration in this last minute change of design.

    It was no secret that federal scrutiny over the construction of this project in such an environmentally-sensitive federally-protected endangered-animal habitat could wreak havoc on costs, and if the FKAA were to let the feds scrutinize the engineering of their hybrid gravity-grinder pump sewer system, it might never be affordable. So the FKAA prepared a draft environmental assessment plan, affixed a phoney US Corps of Engineers logo and put it on their website to make the public believe that the Corps of Engineers has vetted their scheme. But it was a phoney environmental assessment. The Corps did not review the sewer system, and a draft environmental assessment review by the feds was intentionally sidestepped. I think because it would have never passed a federal review.

    The real damage of the sewer system is likely yet unknown, and could cause irreparable damage to the Keys ecosystem. For instance, consider the 23 wells drilled through the ancient Miami Limestone base of Big Pine Key that could forever destroy the natural freshwater lens that has allowed the Key Deer, the Marsh Rabbit and several other threatened species to avoid extinction in times of drought. Do you think that the feds would have let this to happen if a proper environmental assessment review were allowed to proceed?

    Before the system has even been switched on, there seems to almost be an expectation of a disaster. I believe that our worst fears are yet to be realized. So who is to blame? The FKAA, who floated a phoney Corps of Engineers Environmental study and hatched a hybrid system, largely engineered by grinder pump salesmen; or the BOCC, who dealt out the unincorporated areas of Monroe in a smoke-filled back room in exchange of a portion of the money that was supposed to pay for the sewers?

    Perhaps it was the residents of Monroe who voted for the sales tax extension without carefully reading the ballot are to blame. There is no free lunch; especially in the Keys.

    Liked by 1 person

    • M_Blank says:

      Hmmmm…you know what’s interesting? The county went after the Army Corps money with a vengeance in 2013. But the weird thing is they probably could never have used it. By the time they got through the agreement process, Cudjoe Regional would have been nearly complete. There is so much going on behind the scenes we’ll probably never get to the bottom of it all.

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