Monroe County commissioners all are calling next month's general election one of the most important in recent county history, despite no commission seat being on the ballot.
The county is asking voters on Nov. 6 if they would support extending a one-penny sales tax that is set to expire in 2018. The county wants to extend it to 2033, which could bring in an additional $50 million to $60 million for wastewater projects for the county and all Keys municipalities.
The countywide sales tax would generate about $15 million annually for the county, $6 million for the city of Key West and about $2 million each for Marathon and Islamorada, according to County Administrator Roman Gastesi.
Using sales-tax money benefits residents, as it put less of a burden on property taxes. With sales tax, county officials estimate that about half is paid by tourists.
"Anytime you get tourists to pay half, you get more bang for your buck," Gastesi said.
He argued that the economic conditions are ideal for sales-tax revenue, as it has been on the rise for the past three years.
The focus of the money is to go to wastewater projects, but to make the extension more appealing to Keys cities, the County Commission has agreed to allow municipalities to use the revenue for other capital improvements, such as stormwater upgrades and parks. The commission has also agreed to let Key Largo use the money to help pay off the debt on wastewater projects already completed.
However, commissioners are concerned that the question may get overlooked, as it is the first item on the last page of the ballot. The County Commission discussed the question's placement on the ballot when it met last month, and commissioners agreed that they needed to put out the word about the importance of the referendum.
Commissioner Heather Carruthers worried that if people are not familiar with the question, they will just vote no.
"It's extremely important and people need to understand that," Carruthers said. "If it does not pass, it could impact ad valorem (property) taxes."
The county will be using most of its share of the sales tax money to design and build the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment System.
In addition to the sales tax money, the county will use its $30 million portion of $50 million in state bonded funds to start construction of the Cudjoe Regional project. The state Legislature and the governor agreed this year to give $50 million to the Keys for wastewater projects.
The county has $20 million in reserves earmarked for the Cudjoe project, which will cost about $150 million to complete. The county plans to use sales tax revenue and bonded money to pay the remaining costs.
The project will serve Cudjoe, Summerland and Big Pine keys and remote areas of the Lower Keys. In July, the County Commission reduced the connection fee for the Cudjoe Regional from $5,700 to $4,500 per residential dwelling unit. The county reduced the fee because sales-tax revenue figures looked so promising, Gastesi said. If the referendum doesn't pass, the $4,500 fee could increase, county officials said.
"We may have to consider raising assessment fees, and we don't want to have to do that," Carruthers said. "It's not fair."
Islamorada needs its share of the money to complete major sewer projects in its community. Islamorada and the county are the last to complete major sewer projects.
The sales tax extension is one of two ballot questions proposed by the county. The County Commission is also asking voters if they want to change how the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority board is selected. Currently the board is selected by the governor. The question is non-binding, as it would ultimately be up to the state Legislature to change how the board is chosen.
The County Commission agreed in March to ask the voters if the Aqueduct Authority board should go from an appointed board to an elected board. The commission began discussing the referendum question in December after the water utility board, in a November meeting, accepted Executive Director Jim Reynolds' resignation, immediately promoted General Counsel Kirk Zuelch to replace him and rehired Bob Feldman as general counsel -- all without public discussion, a local or national search for the two positions, and passing over other utility administrators.
The abrupt management changes led to speculation about Reynolds' departure and political undercurrents at the utility. Questions have been raised, for example, about the residence of the utility's board chairman, Bob Dean, and whether he resides in the district he represents.
Dean claims residence in Old Town Key West, but his current homestead exemption, telephone listing and wife's voter registration is for a Key Haven home.
The Monroe County Property Appraiser's Office and the Supervisor of Elections Office have reviewed the complaint, and neither has found a violation of homestead or election rules.
The board was appointed when created in 1938, and remained that way until 1976. The board was elected from 1976 to 1980, but changed back to appointed under former Gov. Bob Graham as the utility foundered financially.
The Aqueduct Authority board has been silent on the referendum question and has not voted to take a position on it.
"We are asking people to get out and vote, and vote their conscience," Zuelch said.