Florida Keys News
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Tax rate, zip line approved

MARATHON -- With no objection from the public or board, the Marathon City Council last week unanimously approved a slight property tax increase at its final budget hearing.

The tax rate was set at $219.89 for every $100,000 of non-homestead exempt property value for fiscal year 2012-13.

A tax rate of $205.12 per $100,000 in value would have raised the same amount of tax revenue -- $3.52 million -- as this year. Next year's rate will generate $3.71 million, instead.

According to City Manager Roger Hernstadt, a $96,000 increase will help fund two firefighter positions and help pay for an increase in the Key West bus service. Additional expenses for the Pigeon Key Ferry have also been factored in.

After adopting the budget, the City Council voted 3-2 to accept a state grant to begin the construction of a zip line at Crane Point Hammock. Mayor Pete Worthington and Councilman Richard Keating dissented.

The zip line, funded mostly by a $735,000 Community Development Block Grant from the state Department of Economic Opportunity, does not come without controversy. While backed by many business leaders, the attraction is opposed by environmental activists, who vowed to challenge last week's approval.

Deb Curlee, a member of Keep Crane Point Natural, said opening a zip line would cause direct harm to the white-crowned pigeon, which nests and feeds in the hardwood hammocks of the 63-acre site.

She said the pigeon is easily distracted and a zip line would deter the birds from settling there.

"The people in favor of the zip line are not concerned about any of the environmental issues," she told the Free Press.

Curlee worries about the bird's long-term prospects since the pigeon is hunted for sport in Cuba and the Bahamas. She said her next step is to set up a legal fund to fight the project.

"It's not over at all," she said last Friday. "We will definitely be watching every step along the way."

Hernstadt said city staff did not take a position on whether to accept the grant money.

"We investigated whether it was possible to secure the grant," he said.

But Hernstadt said he believes the project will help draw tourists to Marathon.

"I consider the Keys as one long strip mall, and this is just one more thing to attract tourists," he said.

The nonprofit Crane Point's board expects the zip line to create 21 full-time jobs to serve those tourists. However, under the terms of the grant, the city would have to pay the state $35,000 for each job not created.

Before construction, the project must receive environmental impact approvals from the council as well as the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In other news, a local business owner who runs Marathon's only public laundromat may be able to keep her doors open after the City Council last week agreed to significantly lower her wastewater bill.

Donna Farmer, owner of Maytag Laundromat, was originally assessed at 31 EDUs, a unit of measure for sewer system usage equivalent to 31 single-family homes. At that high of an assessment, it would cost Farmer more than $1,300 a month for sewer service -- an amount, she says, that would shut her business down.

After Farmer petitioned the council with much support, her assessment was reduced to 19.11 EDUs and a discount was applied to bring her effective rate down to about 4.7 EDUs, or $700 a month for service.

"I'm still trying to figure out what the numbers mean and what I'm going to do," Farmer told the Free Press. "I'm not 100 percent sure it will work."

Farmer said she appreciates the effort of the council to bring her assessment down as low as it did, although she asked for one EDU.

"People are just struggling," she said. "Laundry is a necessity, but people don't like to do it."

Farmer said she most likely will have to increase her rates to help cover the added expense.

"People outside the area don't understand what it takes to run this kind of business in the Keys," she said.


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