The Swap Agreement and Cudjoe Regional

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Finding the right tools.

This post about that “wacky” presentation by the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) generated a couple of interesting comments.

There’s one in particular I want to focus on today.  But I’ll start by saying this:

I get that Cudjoe Regional customers are upset.  They have every right to be.  But demanding that Key Largo’s $17 million in state money be diverted to Cudjoe Regional is ethically wrong, morally reprehensible and financially unsustainable.  Key Largo will pay $1,700 more per EDU for their sewer project than their neighbors in Cudjoe Regional.  Overall, Key Largo taxpayers will pay $26 million more – almost $2,000 more per EDU than their neighbors in the other unincorporated areas combined.  People need to know and understand this.

Here is the comment I’m referring to.

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.

These sound like talking points that came straight from Danny Kolhage.  He has referred to the swap agreement as “money laundering”.  It didn’t stop him from voting for it though.  (See item O2 on page 18 of the minutes.)  It passed unanimously.  Kolhage’s role in the discussion is documented here.  Gee, how could a “straight arrow” like Danny Kolhage vote in favor of a “money laundering” scheme?

Might I humbly suggest that if Cudjoe Regional customers want additional changes they could perhaps…gasp…pay for it themselves.  Blasphemy!  There is no reason that Key Largo should have to carry a larger financial burden for the sewer projects.  None.  Let’s say Cudjoe Regional’s assessment was increased by $1000 per EDU.  That would raise $9 million for more gravity conversions, and at the same time decrease the funding disparity from $26 million to $17 million.  The swap agreement would then take care of the remaining $17 million.  It’s fair.  It’s reasonable.  It’s logical.  It’s financially responsible.  That’s why the county would never consider it.

The swap agreement is certainly not ideal, but it is the only mechanism available to even partially repair the huge funding imbalance that the county has imposed on its taxpayers in Key Largo.  The idea was initially suggested by a member of the governor’s staff.  Throwing around accusations of “money laundering” only adds to the “pain-in-the-ass” reputation the Keys has already earned in Tallahassee, especially since the Cudjoe Regional project hit the fan.

By the way, I hold the county and their “partner” responsible for that.  Not the citizens groups.

It is common practice for county officials to make disparaging remarks about their own constituents.  They do it routinely.  When I first pointed out the huge differences in funding from the infrastructure sales tax, I was told to watch out for the Key West chamber of commerce.  Apparently, they’re out to grab all the sales tax they can – fairness be damned.  Lol.

Certain county commissioners have implied publicly that Cudjoe Regional customers are particularly stubborn and demanding.  The county put out a harsh and unintentionally hilarious statement accusing a couple of Cudjoe Regional property owners of trying to stop the “efficient, cost-effective” project.  It stands to reason that Key Largo’s situation would be mis-characterized as well.  Perhaps Kolhage is a repeat offender when it comes to denigrating one group of constituents in order to pit one against the other.

People have to stop falling for this crap.

Over the years, I’ve learned to automatically reject all county smack talk.  I strongly recommend (and hope) that others do the same.  A bit of charitable skepticism would go a long way toward preventing county officials from sowing artificial divisions and then exploiting them.

For those who still think that the county is a reliable information source, there are a multitude of dishonest county statements documented and debunked on this blog.

  • Here’s a whole page dedicated to the Emergency Services Surtax (ESS) proposal.  Comm. Heather Carruthers and Strategic Planning Director (and Clerk of Court candidate) Kevin Madok showed us who they really are with this one.
  • Here’s where the county tried to claim the Key Largo project was “overfunded“.
  • Here’s where I debunked a bunch of their excuses about the wastewater funding disparity.
  • And some more excuses.
  • Kolhage’s hypocritical position on Rowell’s Marina.
  • Murphy’s attempt to explain how the wastewater funding disparity simultaneously does not exist and will be fixed shortly.  Riiight.
  • Search for “monkey math” on the blog.  You’ll find a million entries.  Here’s a good one.  It’s a little out of date, but it’s a good example of the county’s deceptive rhetoric.
  • Here’s where I caught them in a lie about the animal shelters, which was especially upsetting and horrible.
  • There are also the many questionable actions of the county’s “partner”, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA).  The county has shown zero concern over these matters.  In fact, I requested the final audit report on Big Coppitt almost two weeks ago.  No response.  Is the county doing their due diligence?  It doesn’t appear that they are.

As ridiculous as the county is they have authority over what happens with our hard-earned tax dollars.  They’ve used that authority to go on a massive spending spree and incur a huge load of long-term debt.  On top of that, they’ve chosen to inflict the financial damage in a negligently unfair way.  That’s why it wouldn’t surprise me if the county were trying to undermine the swap agreement politically by calling it “money laundering”.  They are presumably preying on the weakness of some Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District commissioners.

Diverting Key Largo’s $17 million isn’t going to solve Cudjoe Regional’s problems.  It’s not even going to make a dent.  It only makes a bad situation worse.  Here’s what I think needs to be done.

The voters need to clean house.  Nothing will improve until they do.  The BOCC has been monumentally foolish, wasteful and unfair with taxpayer money.  There are three commissioners up for re-election this year.  All three need to go.  The good news is that Sylvia Murphy has a challenger.  She’s been about as indifferent to Key Largo’s problems as she could possibly be.  She’s been about as indifferent to everyone’s problems as she could possibly be, including Cudjoe Regional’s.

In my opinion, Kolhage and Carruthers are even worse.  I know they have bought the admiration of some with their wasteful and foolish spending on Cudjoe Regional.  But those chickens are coming home to roost.  Not only are gravity systems very expensive but they can lead to operational problems.  Besides, I don’t believe that all the excessive spending was necessarily for the benefit of Cudjoe Regional customers.  Although that is what people have been led to believe.

Neither Kolhage nor Carruthers have challengers yet and the qualifying period ends this Friday.  Improvement will never be possible until Monroe County finally has responsible leadership on the BOCC.  The status quo won’t get us there.

Spread the pain equally.  Keys citizens, especially those in Cudjoe Regional, are going to have to get used to the idea that they are not the only people affected by the county’s sewer mess – or capital projects mess in general.  The comment above makes it clear that some folks in Cudjoe Regional are still so preoccupied with their own issues, that they are blind to the problems faced by their neighbors.  Fortunately, these people seem to be in the minority these days.

As I said above, diverting Key Largo’s $17 million, and blindly spending it on Cudjoe Regional will not even begin to solve the problems faced by the Keys.  It only perpetuates the issues faced by the entire community.  People need to zoom out and see the big picture.

You can’t get blood from a stone.  Key Largo’s economy is showing signs of distress as compared to other areas in the Keys.  Continuing to apply inordinate financial pressure is likely to backfire if Key Largo finally gets fed up and decides to incorporate at long last.  They’ll take millions in revenue with them.  That puts solutions to Cudjoe Regional’s problems even farther out of reach.

The Big Coppitt and Cudjoe Regional projects need to be closely examined for possible fraudulent activity, incompetence and/or morally questionable actions.  There are certain red flags that I think warrant a closer look.  All it took to launch a grand jury investigation of the Stock Island project were customer complaints.  Surely, the volume and intensity of complaints (and lawsuits) from Cudjoe Regional customers warrant the same.

In a strange way, fraud could be good news for the taxpayers.  There’s at least a remote possibility that taxpayers could recover some money.  If the root cause is simple stupidity and negligence, we’re probably out of luck.

The county needs to take a clear-eyed, rational, realistic, fact-based look at Cudjoe Regional and all the Lower Keys sewer projects.  Again, this will not be possible with the current crew in charge.  Their egos and agendas will not permit it.  Cudjoe Regional customers are right to have concerns.  I have concerns as well, particularly about operating costs and the functioning of the master lift stations equipped with multiple grinder pumps, which were designed to serve single-family homes.  Others, who are more informed than I, still have concerns about the sizing of the plant.

If Lower Keys wastewater treatment plants could be consolidated or standardized, that might help with operating costs.  (The deep well that Cudjoe Regional activists fought for might be a huge advantage here – depending on its capacity.)  Unfortunately, addressing these concerns will most likely take a significant additional capital investment.  Where will the money come from?

The fact is the BOCC has wronged all taxpayers county-wide.  The solution to Cudjoe Regional’s problems will definitely NOT be found in denying basic fairness to Key Largo.  Ultimately, all Keys taxpayers need to realize that county commissioners and staff are an unreliable source of information.  Time and again they bash their own constituents and make statements that contradict documented fact and defy common sense.  Sometimes all in the same sentence!

It’s long past time to move on to something better.

 

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