Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Still no federal funds for Keys sewer projects

MONROE COUNTY -- There will be no federal dollars this year for Florida Keys wastewater projects.

That decision was made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in late June, said Fred Hicks, lobbyist for the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District.

"What we were hoping, and what in fact did not happen, is that the Corps could have spent money on environmental infrastructure had it so desired," Hicks said.

In March, Hicks was among the lobbyists who met with a delegation of officials from Key Largo, Islamorada and Marathon when they traveled to Washington on a lobbying trip. The officials left D.C. optimistic, if not confident, that this year the Keys would receive a portion of the $55 million that has not yet been funded from the $100 million Florida Keys Water Quality Improvement Act, which Congress authorized in 2000.

Marathon would like the money to pay down debt on its $125 million system and Key Largo wants to pay down debt on its $150 million system.

Islamorada, in the meantime, wants to reduce the cost for those who will be served by the $123.5 million project it has underway.

Monroe County is also anxious to receive sewer money to help pay for the $180 million Cudjoe Key Regional System that it is set to construct.

"We left there thinking, 'Great, we'll probably get some money this year,'" Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District member Steve Gibbs said of the lobbying trip. "It just didn't happen and it was very disappointing."

Congress didn't pass a budget this year, so the Corps and other federal agencies were instead funded by a continuing resolution from 2012, minus approximately 5 percent due to the budget sequester that went into effect in March.

In 2012 Congress directed the Corps to spend $29.6 million on environmental infrastructure projects, such as sewers and water works. So Keys officials had hoped that the Corps would make a similar investment in such projects this year, and that a portion of that money would be directed to local sewer projects.

But because there was no formal direction from Congress this year, the Corps had the option to eschew environmental infrastructure funding entirely. That's what they did, said Hicks. Instead, the Corps directed that money to concerns such as navigation, waterways, harbors and flood control, which they view as their core mission.

"That's what was so frustrating about the continuing resolution is that they didn't carve out any part of the Corps budget," Hicks said.

Marathon City Manager Roger Hernstadt was philosophical about not acquiring any federal money this year. Marathon and Key Largo had also hoped to share most of a desired $50 million state wastewater grant that officials throughout the county pursued unsuccessfully during the Florida Legislature's spring session.

"It's just another inning down and another inning to play," Hernstadt said.

Hicks said there are good signs on the federal level for 2014. The Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has already passed a budget that includes $50 million for environmental infrastructure funds.

The budget, though, must still pass the full Senate and then get hashed out in conference with the House of Representatives. The House won't include a line-item for environmental infrastructure in its budget because the Republican leadership views such funding as an earmark, Hicks said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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