Florida Keys News
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
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Council opts against sewer board

ISLAMORADA -- There will be no Islamorada Wastewater District, the Village Council decided last week.

"Another set of eyes is great. I just hate to put another layer of government on the books," Councilwoman Deb Gillis said.

Her comment came near the end of a Feb. 6 workshop the council called to discuss the long-debated proposal to establish a wastewater district. Such a district would have taken over day-to-day responsibilities of managing the Islamorada sewer utility -- a task that the Village Council instead will continue to handle.

The proposed district was championed by the village's water quality advisory committee, especially longtime committee chairman Dave Makepeace. At last week's workshop, Makepeace once again put forward an outline of the proposal. He suggested a dependent district, with a board that would be selected by the Village Council. The council also would have set the overall responsibilities of the district and exerted control of it through budgeting.

Still, the district board would have had real authority, in effect taking over decision making for the sewer project and the existing Plantation Key wastewater system in much the way that Village Manager Ed Koconis makes day-to-day operating decisions about city functions.

Makepeace suggested the board be tasked with overseeing the $91 million sewer construction project, supervising the village's engineering contractor, managing the village's wastewater fund and performing community relations related to the sewer project, among other tasks.

He and the remainder of the water quality committee made no formal suggestion on how much the wastewater district board members should be paid, though he said the board had discussed $800 to $900 per month. Otherwise, Makepeace said, the new district wouldn't bring extra costs, save for meeting expenses.

As was the case in a December meeting, when the council called for last week's workshop, the proposal had the support of Vice Mayor Ted Blackburn and Councilman Mike Forster.

"I look at this as citizen government," said Blackburn, before explaining that he's a fanatic when it comes to local government. "I honestly believe that the broader you can have citizen government, the better off you are."

Taking wastewater off the Village Council's plate would leave council members with far more time to work on all other Islamorada issues, Forster added.

But council members were given a note of caution from Robert Sheets, an executive of the Government Services Group, who was brought down to the meeting to discuss the pros and cons of an independent district. Government Services Group has worked with 160 local governments in Florida, Sheets said, and has long contracted with the village.

The powers of the district would need to be spelled out extremely carefully, Sheets said. For example, the council would need to determine whether the district board would be allowed to enter into and alter contracts.

"The hardest thing to do once you've made a change is to ever undo it," Sheets said. "You've got to know what the endgame will be. You've got to know what it's like when you are serving 9,000 customers."

That latter issue, said Mayor Ken Philipson, is what the village really needs to be concentrating on when it comes to changing its wastewater management structure.

The wastewater utility serves 1,000 customers now but is expected to reach that 9,000 figure after completion of the sewer system in 2015.

Philipson opposed the creation of a wastewater district but said he is in favor of increasing the in-house village sewer staff, which currently includes only a manger, Greg Tindle, and his assistant, Sandy Skeel.

"Within the next couple years, we need to have a utilities department staffed and ready," the mayor said.

Gillis and Councilman Dave Purdo cited concerns about the potential powers of a sewer district, as well as the cost, in voting against the proposal.

"[I]f we're going to spend extra money, I'd like to spend it to have expertise in our staff," Gillis said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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