The Monroe County Commission agreed Wednesday to use $5 million in county funds for five canal restoration projects and go after $30 million in BP and Transocean fine money for cleaning up canals.
County Commissioners Sylvia Murphy and Danny Kolhage agreed the county should go after the $30 million, but were opposed to using $5 million in infrastructure sales-tax funds for canal restoration projects.
They argued the canals were dug before the state Growth Management Act went into place and the county did not permit the work. Therefore, the county is not liable for maintaining water-quality levels in the canals.
"Five million dollars is not pennies," Murphy said. "I want to see the canals taken care of, but not on the backs of taxpayers."
County Mayor George Neugent contended the state and federal government would still hold the county government responsible for meeting Clean Water Act standards in the local canals.
"We can spend the $5 million litigating the issue or we can spend the $5 million fixing the problem," Neugent said.
Neugent and county Sustainability Program Manager Rhonda Haag also stated the county needs to pony up the $5 million in order have the best chance of obtaining the $30 million in BP fine money, called Restore Act funds. The funds come from Clean Water Act fines levied on BP and Transocean, the companies responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill in 2010.
Putting up the $5 million also will show state and federal officials that the county is serious about water quality projects and better the county's chances of obtaining state and federal grant money, Neugent and Haag said.
County Commissioner Heather Carruthers called the $5 million "an investment worth making," as the Keys economy is dependent on healthy waterways.
To clean up all 502 canals in the Florida Keys, the county would have to spend $300 million. Kolhage wanted to make sure the county would not be on the hook for the entire amount.
"I'm concerned about burdening taxpayers of this county with a project of this magnitude," Kolhage said.
County Administrator Roman Gastesi said county voters passed a referendum to extend a 1-cent sales tax for another 15 years and will bring in $15 million a year for wastewater and water quality projects.
Kolhage is concerned because the county may not be given any more state-issued Rate of Growth Ordinance (ROGO) units after 2023 and may have to buy people's property so the government agency won't be sued in takings lawsuit, Kolhage said. The county may have to spend millions buying such properties, he said. ROGO units are required for people to build on currently undeveloped lots.
Haag and Neugent hope the majority of the canal projects will be done with grant money, they said. The county has received $300,000 in grants so far from the state Department of Environmental Protection to study the canal issue, Haag said.
Most of the residential canals in the Florida Keys were built in the 1950s and 1960s, long before there were strict water-quality standards handed down by the state and federal government and before resource and fishery managers fully understood canals' impacts on local water quality and the broader coastal ecosystems.
Many of the canals were excavated to depths of 15 feet or more to maximize production of fill material, according to a report by AMEC Environment & Infrastructure, which the county contracted to study the issue.
Most of the canals provide little or no tidal flushing and accumulate nutrients and decomposing organic material, AMEC Environment & Infrastructure stated in its report to the county.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection have documented pollution from cesspits and septic tanks, stormwater runoff and the accumulation of seagrass leaves and other organic material commonly known as "weed wrack."
The pollution and organic material has led to elevated levels of nutrients, hydrogen sulfide and fecal coliform and enterococci, according to AMEC Environment & Infrastructure.
Also on Wednesday:
The commission appointed its members to the local Restore Act Committee, which will start meeting in April.
Each official's selections are listed below.
• County Mayor George Neugent: Historic Tours of America co-owner Ed Swift and Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association Executive Director Bill Kelly
• Commissioner Danny Kolhage: Florida Keys Community College Dean of Marine Science Patrick Rice
• Commissioner Sylvia Murphy: former Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary Upper Region Manager John Halas
• Commissioner Heather Carruthers: Centennial Bank Vice President Todd German
• Commissioner David Rice: Coral Shores High School marine biology teacher David Makepeace
Florida Keys cities named members to the committee, too.
• Key West: Assistant City Manager Mark Finigan
• Marathon: Mayor Mike Cinque
• Layton: Councilman William Murchie
• Key Colony Beach: Commissioner John DeNeale.
The committee will make recommendations on what restoration projects will be funded with the money.