I saw this thoughtful letter by Howard Gelbman in the Free Press about the Cross Key/Monroe Park situation. It’s an open letter to Governor Rick Scott. Scott hasn’t been terribly sympathetic to the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (District) or to Keys citizens who would like to reform their own local government. Unfortunately, I don’t think Mr. Gelbman will get much traction, but it can’t hurt for him to try. Let’s take a look at his letter anyway.
The KLWTD commissioners and staff have gone far beyond ethical standards by providing deliberate misinformation to the public and Legislature and have run amok with their expenses and use of taxpayer funding.
The District has indeed provided misinformation to the public about the project, and then tried to blame it on a reporter. That’s the bad news. The good news is that some board members were not at all pleased with that behavior.
The legislature approved a $17 million grant to the KLWTD from the Mayfield fund to assist in completing its mission of”protecting nearshore waters in their district from wastewater pollution.” You signed off on this grant.
Rather than use it for its mandated purpose, they requested from your office to use the fund to pay down old debt. You told them the grant could only be used for “new projects” not debt repayment. So they sold it to Monroe County in exchange for cash and now are using the cash for debt repayment.
To be clear, that $17 million was part of the Mayfield Grant, which explicitly allowed for financing and refinancing the Keys sewer projects. The District finished its project on time and under budget. But when state money finally started to come through the governor pulled the rug out and demanded that the money only be used for “new” projects. This decision effectively punished the District and its ratepayers for complying with the state-mandated deadline – a backwardass gubmint decision if ever there was one. Technically, the governor’s treatment of Key Largo amounts to an unconstitutional unfunded mandate. Unfortunately, there are no legal remedies available to those hurt by his decision.
The District argued and fought against this injustice for months. But the state was bound and determined to make it stick. To save face? To please a shadowy constituency? Pure stupidity? I’ve got my suspicions but I don’t really know for sure. I used to think the governor was manipulated into it. Now I’m not so sure.
In a belated attempt to contain the fallout and improve the optics, one of the governor’s staffers actually came up with the idea of the swap agreement. The county stalled and dragged its feet on the swap hoping that the District would not be able to come up with new projects and would have to forfeit the money so that it could be squandered on Cudjoe Regional for the benefit of folks like Richard Toppino (a Scott appointee to the FKAA board who comes loaded with conflicts of interest that the FKAA lied to the public about).
Unfortunately for the county, there are plenty of worthwhile projects to spend the money on. And the District came up with a list that included the Cross Key project, a reuse system, solar and many others. Even the new building that Gelbman mentions later in his letter was included. That list included projects that would have used the entire $43 million that the District was entitled to under the Mayfield agreement.
They are recklessly spending money on a new headquarters office ($1 million) and continue to hold three meetings a month, even though they do not have the workload they did have while they were constructing the (now-completed) Key Largo central sewer system, costing the taxpayers $6,075 in meeting salaries per month, while the much-larger Monroe County government gets by on one meeting a month.
Gelbman isn’t wrong here. What’s interesting is that even though the $17 million was traded away to the county interest-free, the District has still managed to scrounge up money for projects. The building is a perfect example. So why can’t they find $2 million to serve the Cross Key area? And why go to the trouble of changing their boundaries to exclude Cross Key?
Commissioner Andy Tobin, on the record, supported by the rest of the commissioners, stated “Cross Key would be better off under the FKAA rather than the KLWTD.” If true, then, in my opinion, maybe the district itself should be dissolved?
Funny thing. The idea of the FKAA serving the Cross Key area has been raised before, but apparently nobody has ever had a serious conversation with the FKAA about it. Kirk Zuelch and Tom Walker reportedly showed up at the District’s February 7th meeting, wondering what they were being expected to do in Cross Key. They asked if the legislation to change the District’s boundaries could be held off for a year.
In certain respects, Cross Key would be better off if they were served by the FKAA. The FKAA has received over $100 million in infrastructure sales tax money from the county for it’s needlessly expensive sewer projects. The District has received about $20 million. This, even though the entities’ wastewater projects serve about the same number of EDU’s. (An EDU is equivalent to a single family home.) As a result of this negligent unfairness on the part of the county, District customers pay much more for their sewer projects even though they cost less on a per EDU basis.
The state’s illogical decision regarding wastewater funding also benefits the FKAA. So, yes, I think in some respects the Cross Key areas would most definitely be better off if served by the FKAA. Because of cockeyed state and county funding priorities, far more money would be available to subsidize Cross Key if it were an FKAA project. Theoretically, Cross Key customers would benefit from that.
Even so, that does not let the District off the hook for the shady behavior regarding Cross Key. That behavior includes…
- Exaggerating the cost of the project and then blaming it on a misquote.
- Crying poor, and then spending money on non-essential items like a new building.
- Working to exclude Cross Key from their service area and then trying to dump the project on the FKAA without consulting them.
I hope the District will do better going forward. At their last meeting, three board members sent a strong signal that they intend to do just that. We’ll see.