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Florida Keys News
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Political maneuvers, a new park and Bogart comes to Key Largo

KEY LARGO -- Monroe County agreed in 2013 to develop its next waterfront park on its largest island.

On Nov. 20, the Monroe County Commission agreed to purchase the 8-acre Rowell's Marina and hired an attorney to close the deal. Before the final vote, the county conducted an environmental assessment and found the bayfront property at mile marker 104 to have no significant issues.

Upper Keys groups and event promoters have long coveted the mostly open property with U.S. 1 frontage.

When Monroe County residents agreed to extend a 1-cent sales tax through a ballot measure in November 2012, it opened the floodgates to millions of dollars for infrastructure projects. It also finally gave the county commission the means to purchase Rowell's Marina, which it had previously considered buying after the Rowell family patriarch died and his children put the property on the market in 2005.

The property's $5 million price tag does not include any improvements made after closing, which should occur in late January. The purchase required a supermajority vote of the commission since the asking price was $250,000 more than the average of two county-purchased appraisals.

The commission voted 4-1 to purchase Rowell's, with Lower Keys Commissioner Danny Kolhage dissenting. He has long said the money should go toward roads, bridges and other capital improvement projects. Many groups including the Monroe County Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce supported the purchase. Plans on what to do with the property remain a bit vague. Overall, residents attending public meetings have said they do not favor boat ramps and want the property's open space preserved. A preliminary county plan, however, shows boat docks, a potential beach, a food vendor and picnic areas.

Key Largo gained national attention this past spring when it hosted its first-ever Humphrey Bogart Film Festival. The event is to become an annual feature with another festival set for May. The event was dampened a bit by thunderstorms but organizers still estimated about 3,000 people attended. Among the events were multiple movie showings, panel discussions, a ball and a brunch.

According to historial accounts, it was the release of the 1948 Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film, "Key Largo," that prompted residents north of Tavernier to ask the U.S. Postal Service to change the town's mailing address from Rock Harbor to Key Largo.

Stephen Bogart, son of the iconic movie star who died of cancer in 1957, attended the inaugural festival, though Bacall, his mother could not attend due to illness. Along with Stephen Bogart, movie critic and author Leonard Maltin attended and spoke at the festival.

In sewer-related business, the Key Largo Wastewater Board earlier this year asked the Florida Legislature to increase its compensation by replacing a defunct cost-of-living index with a new one. The board then voted to award itself back pay since it had not been receiving annual increases.

The matter first surfaced in January, when the wastewater board voted to ask the state to increase its per-meeting compensation from $300 to $382. The board can be paid for up to three meetings per month.

The change came at the advice of board attorney Ray Giglio. Since the district was created in 2002, the board had not received any cost-of-living increase in compensation, he said.

The rationale behind the $82 increase was spelled out in a memo prepared by Chief Information Officer Paul Christian, who tied it to Consumer Price Index increases from 2002 to 2012. The only year the CPI decreased was in 2008.

With a potential monthly payment of $1,146, the sewer board members can now earn more than Village Council members, who are paid $1,000 a month to oversee not only their own sewer system but all other municipal services, and less than Marathon City Council members, who make $1,500 a month.

Later in the year, the Key Largo Wastewater Board awarded itself $51,000 in back pay, once again on the advice of Giglio. The back pay matter, which was initially set for a vote, was taken off a September meeting agenda.

Since Giglio concluded there was a legal obligation to pay the money, no vote was required, he said. In fact, Giglio told the board that not accepting the back pay from the district's ratepayers would be akin to accepting a bride from them.

According to numbers provided by disitrict General Manager Margaret Blank, board member Norm Higgins was owed $11,416.50; board member Andy Tobin, $10,536.73; chairman Robby Majeska, $10,525.29; board member David Asdourian, $2,034.02; and board member Steve Gibbs, $1,646.59.

Also paid were former board members Susan Hammaker, who was owed $8,780.19, and Charlie Brooks, who died in March and was owed $9,769.92. Neither Blank nor Giglio have said how Brooks' estate would be compensated.

Brooks, who died of a heart attack at age 81, led an unsuccessful campaign in 1999 to incorporate Key Largo. From 2002 to 2006, he served on the wastewater board and again from 2008 to 2012, when he lost re-election.

On the firefighting side of things, residents are finding a new department responding to fire and rescue calls.

The Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department, led by Fire Chief Sergio Garci and President Frank Conklin, lost its contract in March in the wake of an ongoing dispute with the Key Largo Fire-EMS District over department management and oversight. The district taxes Key Largo property owners and contracts with the fire department and Key Largo Ambulance Corps for services.

The Ambulance Corps agreed to take on firefighting duties at the district's request and set up nonprofit Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department, consisting largely of firefighters who worked or volunteered for the previous department.

The former department owns the land on which Station 24 sits, but the district owns the building. The district has offered the department $1 for the land. The district is mulling legal action to seize its land and department funds. Meanwhile, the old department ran up about $47,000 in legal costs during its failed effort to save its contract.

jgore@keysnews.com

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