Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
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Disagreement lingers over lobbying plan

KEY LARGO -- The Key Largo Wastewater Board wasn't biting last week when County Administrator Roman Gastesi pitched the latest proposal for lobbying the state for a grant to pay for Florida Keys sewer projects.

The county and other local entities are seeking another cut of the Stan Mayfield state grant, which has already brought $50 million to the Keys and could ultimately deliver another $150 million.

The Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District hopes to get $20 million from the grant this year to help pay down sewer debt.

But Gastesi says that money may be harder to come by, which is why he's been pushing for Key Largo and local municipalities to join the county in paying for a lobbyist to target those funds.

Gov. Rick Scott left the $50 million grant out his recently released executive budget. However, the Florida Legislature could still propose the funding in its budget.

"It was easier to sell last time because we were creating jobs," Gastesi said.

He told the sewer board that Scott was more open to disbursing the money when it was for infrastructure. Trying to secure the funds to pay down debt is a harder sell, he said.

The latest version of Gastesi's proposal asks the wastewater board to foot a $78,000 bill over three years to pay for an additional lobbyist that would be shared with other entities in Monroe County.

But the wastewater board has said it doesn't want to spend ratepayers dollars for a lobbyist who would essentially be doing the same work they are paying their own lobbyist to do.

"We're not a taxing authority," board member Andy Tobin stressed to the county's top official.

Gastesi, a former lobbyist, said paying the extra money and using the William J. Peebles lobbying firm would put the Keys in the best position to secure the funds.

"We feel we have had the most success doing it this way," he said.

Gastesi dismissed the sewer board's earlier suggestion to pay the county back a portion of whatever money the lobbyist secures.

The current language in the proposed agreement says if Key Largo doesn't help pay for the lobbyist, then the district would not be eligible to receive its $20 million share. Gastesi said that language could be changed.

To move negotiations along and get the agreement to state Rep. Holly Raschein's office, Gastesi said the payment was "not a deal breaker."

Another alternative, Gastesi offered, would be for the board to pay the lobbyist only during the legislative session, which runs only a few months. That would cost about $2,100 a month, he said.

"If the [state grant] money isn't there, just stop paying the bill," Gastesi said.

The board expressed an interest in that approach and agreed consider it during its next meeting.

Former board member Susan Hammaker urged the district not to pay for the lobbyist since the county already collects taxes in Key Largo.

"Apparently the taxes paid by some of the residents of unincorporated Monroe County are sufficient to pay for their share of the lobbying effort, but the taxes paid by Key Largo are not," Hammaker said.

jgore@keysnews.com

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