Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, May 23, 2013
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County official says Key Largo gets more than it pays for

Key Largo residents are getting more county services than they are being taxed for, according to initial documents provided by Monroe County.

A small group of influential Key Largo and Tavernier residents have begun meeting monthly to explore breaking off from the county and forming their own municipality.

As part of their investigation, the residents have made multiple public records requests in an effort to determine whether Key Largo is carrying a high tax burden relative to the services it receives.

The sentiment among incorporation proponents is that the Upper Keys island is a donor community, and that Lower Keys residents benefit the most while Key Largo is treated by the county as a "red-headed stepchild."

Key Largo, though, at least according to Kevin Madok, the county's senior director of strategic planning, is getting more than it gives. The numbers show that the island, excluding the private Ocean Reef Club, sends the county about $17 million in tax revenue and gets back $21 million in services.

County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, a Tavernier resident, has met with members of the group and believes the county is meeting the needs of Key Largo.

"I ask them what they want, and they're getting it," Murphy said. "It might not be next month."

Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District Manager Margaret Blank, however, dismisses the numbers crunched by the county.

"Off the top of my head, it doesn't pass the sanity test," she said in an email. "It also doesn't match up with previous incorporation studies."

Previous feasibility studies paid for by incorporation proponents described Key Largo as a donor community.

Blank said Madok's numbers are misleading because they include funding from the state and federal governments.

"If they are including that silliness in their calculations, then it would certainly skew the numbers," she said.

Blank believes the county's data has provided more questions than answers.

"My sense is that the county does not have any mechanism to determine where revenue is collected and where it is spent," she said.

The wastewater chief is upset with the county for what she describes as a lack of support in Key Largo's effort to pay down debt for state-mandated sewer construction. The Key Largo district is carrying about $80 million in debt and is paying about $7 million a year to service it.

As far as wastewater is concerned, Murphy said she and the county are focused on getting the last area of unincorporated Monroe County hooked up to a central sewer -- the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System -- before the state's December 2015 deadline. Paying down debt, she explained, is not an immediate priority.

For Key Largo residents, that debt means monthly rates that now average $60 might increase in the coming years. After the state Legislature this spring failed to send an expected $20 million grant to Key Largo, the district is now mulling whether to refinance a $21 million loan due in 2017. Waiting until next year or after to refinance could mean higher interest rates, officials explain.

Jon Sorenesen, a Key Largo contractor and airline pilot, said the incorporation group is prepared to conduct its own feasibility study.

"I don't know that I agree with those numbers," he said of the county's figures.

Another member of the incorporation group, Tavernier's John Hammerstrom, said he too wants to see additional financial data.

Incorporation was voted down in Key Largo in 1999 by a 2-1 margin. Murphy said she believes the margin of defeat would be 3-1 if a vote to incorporate were held again.

jgore@keysnews.com

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