Florida Keys News
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Politicos make pitch for funding

FLORIDA KEYS -- Delegations from Marathon, Islamorada and Key Largo didn't get any promises of wastewater assistance last week during lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee.

But officials said the trips were worthwhile, nevertheless.

"I think just going up there and talking to these people and reminding them who we are is important," Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District board member Steve Gibbs said of the Washington visit on March 4 and 5.

During those two days, Gibbs and district General Manager Margaret Blank were joined by Mayor Mike Cinque and City Manager Roger Hernstadt of Marathon, as well as Islamorada Vice Mayor Ted Blackburn, in a whirlwind circuit of Capitol Hill.

The delegation met personally with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. and Congressman Joe Garcia, D-Miami, as well as with staff of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. They also met with staffers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that parcels out wastewater grants to state and local governments.

The Keys are still pushing to receive the remaining $55 million from a $100 million 2000 Congressional authorization called the Florida Keys Water Quality Improvement Act.

No one expects all of that money to be provided this year, but the local officials left Washington hopeful that at least some money will be forthcoming, several said. Delegates said that Nelson and Garcia were especially supportive. They are less sure about Rubio, who is ideologically less disposed to the type of federal assistance the Keys are requesting.

"The Republican party has a strong position against earmarks and sometimes people consider this to be an earmark," Hernstadt said. "We think you can make an equal argument that this is a project that needs to be brought to conclusion."

Whether local governments leap the first hurdle in receiving federal wastewater grants this year is likely to be known by at least March 27, the deadline for Congress to pass a new continuing budget resolution if a shutdown is to be avoided. Continuing resolutions typically closely mimic existing budgets, and in fiscal year 2012 the Corps budgeted $29.6 million for environmental infrastructure projects like Keys wastewater systems.

Key Largo district lobbyist Fred Hicks said the federal budget sequester that went into affect two weeks ago could lead that figure to be cut by approximately 5 percent. Even so, that would leave just over $28 million, which Corps administrators would have to decide how to parcel out by the end of the summer, and likely sooner.

The Keys wastewater project is high on the Corps list, the local delegation says they were told by agency staffers.

"My feeling is if the moon and stars line up correctly, there's a chance we'd get some money," Blackburn said.

Two days after the Washington trip, delegations from the Upper Keys communities traveled to Tallahassee for meetings with Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo; Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami; and aides for Gov. Rick Scott, among others. Local governments' primary goal this legislative session is to achieve funding for the second of four promised $50 million installments of the Stan Mayfield sewer grant.

Gov. Rick Scott didn't include the $50 million in his proposed budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, but he didn't include it in his preliminary budget last year either before eventually signing off on the funding.

The Upper Keys cities also pushed for their own local items in Tallahassee last week. For example, Marathon officials used the visit to lobby state officials to pay the entire estimated $20 million cost of fixing the Old Seven Mile Bridge, Hernstadt said. The city would then cover perpetual maintenance, which is estimated to come to $400,000 annually.

While in Tallahassee, local cities and Monroe County also made their annual reports to the Florida Cabinet on the progress they have made in adhering to their requirements as part of an Area of Critical State Concern.

The reports were largely perfunctory this year, as the governments all received passing grades from the state's Department of Economic Opportunity in November for their work on items such as habitat restoration, hurricane evacuation planning and construction of sewer facilities.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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