Dim Bulbs Discuss Canal Restoration

light-bulb-503881__340I’m very uncomfortable with Monroe County’s canal restoration projects.  I discussed my thoughts here.  The current Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is incapable of managing a project of this magnitude, or of any magnitude really.  I don’t trust them to water my plants, let alone handle my tax money.  The latest story at flkeysnews.com does absolutely nothing to inspire confidence.

The county doesn’t know how much it will cost to complete the projects – somewhere between $200 million and $700 million.  At the high end, the cost rivals that of the wastewater projects, which were $430 million within the unincorporated area and about $800 million county-wide.  We know the cost of the canal projects could equal that of the wastewater projects, but will it have a comparable impact on Keys-wide water quality?  What are we getting for our money?

Again, we don’t know.  The BOCC doesn’t know.  County staff doesn’t know.  The expensive consultants don’t know.  The material available only discusses the water quality improvements within the canals.  Do these improvements justify the cost?  Not only construction costs, but ongoing maintenance costs?

The good news, if you can call it that, is that this particular canal project will not proceed unless state money becomes available.  That’s what the agenda item back-up says anyway.  Of course, the county says a lot of things that turn out not to be true.  Bernstein Park improvements were only supposed to cost $3 million.  However, county officials knew it would cost more than that when only $3 million was budgeted in 2015.  That project now stands at $8 million.  There was no public discussion about the true cost of the project until staff asked to borrow more money to pay for it.

The original cost of this canal restoration project was around $800,000 and included muck removal only.  County staff is now coming back and asking for $135,000 to install an air curtain and $50,000 for two years of maintenance.  So construction and installation costs alone now stand at $935,000 – 23% over the initial cost.

If ongoing maintenance costs are going to be $25,000 per year for the first two years, shouldn’t we assume that they will be $25,000 per year beyond that?  Eventually the air curtain will have to be replaced.  How long do these things last?  Who will pay for ongoing maintenance and future replacements?

This project serves only about twenty properties.  Will those property owners be expected to pay $1,250 per year on an ongoing basis?  Has any county official even broached this topic with them?  If the property owners refuse to pay, and it sounds like they have, will county-wide taxpayers once again be stuck with most of the bill?

This canal project has barely gotten off the ground and it’s already going the way of the disastrous wastewater projects.  Since the BOCC isn’t doing their homework, they are not able to manage expectations.  Ultimately, I believe the burden of maintaining these canal projects will fall on county-wide taxpayers with some receiving enormous subsidies at great expense to others.  Just like the wastewater projects.  The BOCC has set that dangerous precedent, and they do not have the courage to back away from it.

Here are some choice quotes from the http://www.flkeysnews.com article I linked to above.

“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.”

Well…duh.  What was the plan going in?  Was the county going to put out a tip jar?  Have a bake sale?  A car wash?  The BOCC needs to get their arms around the numbers now.  People need to know what they will be expected to contribute, and that contribution has to be based on real data.  There also needs to be a cut-off point.  At what point does the benefit cease to outweigh the cost?

By the way, unless there is a significant, verifiable, quantifiable county-wide benefit, Keys-wide taxpayers should not be contributing to this.

“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.”

Honestly, can you blame people for being “recalcitrant”?  After the negligent mishandling of the wastewater projects, and many other capital projects, the county commissioners have no business casting aspersions on taxpayer reluctance to contribute to this latest poorly-planned resource suck.  None.  Taxpayers would be crazy to sign on voluntarily.  Once again, the BOCC has failed to set an upper financial limit.  Shouldn’t people have some idea of what they’re agreeing to?

That said, I am glad to see Neugent acknowledge that those who benefit should pay.  Of course, he went ahead and approved the expenditure.  His words are not lining up with his actions.

“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.”

Uh…yes.  They didn’t have one before the county started the project. And they don’t have one now.  Why is this such a shock?  Maybe it would have been a good idea to clear all that up before squandering more money on this project.

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.

Yes, it would be a shame to waste that $800,000.  May as well throw another $185,000 down the hole.  How much will it be when county staff comes back for more two years from now?  If the property owners who benefit refuse to pay the maintenance costs, the project should never have been built in the first place.

I’ll repeat the often-asked question:  What is the financial cut-off point?  At what point, does the project no longer make financial sense?  Will the public have any input on this?  Or will the BOCC blindly approve expenditure after expenditure and then suddenly present county-wide taxpayers with the bill?

True to form, the BOCC approved the additional expenditure even after complaining about it.  Complaining and then voting “yes” does not help control costs.  But voting “no” because there isn’t enough information might just do it.  Require staff to come back with cost estimates and a recommendation as to who pays what and how much.  Those estimates better be accurate, and the cost allocation better be fair.  Affordability needs to be addressed in a responsible, straightforward, transparent way.

Kolhage was the only “no” vote.  He typically supports uncontrolled spending, especially in the Lower Keys, but in this case he did the right thing.  I’m pleasantly surprised.  Well, shocked actually.  But I can’t help but wonder about the sudden lurch toward financial responsibility.  It’s definitely not in keeping with his character.

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

The BOCC has no control over the canal restoration projects, the wastewater projects or any other type of project.  They’ve proven over and over again they can’t be trusted with taxpayer money.  The wastewater projects went completely haywire, and so did the Upper Keys court-house, and Bernstein Park and so on.

Unfortunately, Kolhage and Carruthers will be returning to office for another four years.  They ran unopposed.  They are the two most short-sighted and undisciplined members of the BOCC.  And that’s saying a lot.  They are very popular with some because of their money-wasting habits.  It’s easy enough to buy votes in the short-term.  But the truth is somebody has to pay for all that generosity.  While I’m sure throwing money at people is an easy way to get re-elected, it’s a disastrous long-term strategy.

Even though Kolhage managed to squeak out a sensible vote this time, I wouldn’t expect that to become a regular thing.  His track record clearly demonstrates that he strongly supports uncontrolled spending.  He’s got nothing to say about the negligently unfair wastewater funding policies.  I can only assume he supports that, too.  Carruthers is shameless when it comes to her money-wasting tendencies, and tacky money-grabs.  We’re in for a very bumpy ride.

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One Response to Dim Bulbs Discuss Canal Restoration

  1. Pingback: The Blue Paper/Key West The Newspaper - Margaret Blank: Stewardship Act: Smoke and Mirrors -

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