KEY LARGO -- The Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District was hoping the Florida Legislature would approve a $50 million grant for Florida Keys sewer projects. Of that, $20 million was to be used by the district to pay down construction debt.
Despite lobbying efforts and near promises from Tallahassee, the money did not come through.
For district ratepayers, monthly sewer bills shouldn't be affected in the short-term, but increases in the future could be possible, according to local officials.
The district is carrying about $80 million in debt from building its sewer system. In 2017, the district also has a so-called "balloon payment" of $21 million due. District officials had hoped to use the state grant money to erase most of that debt.
The district doesn't have the option of waiting around for another legislative session to see if the grant money comes through next year, officials say.
"With interest rates where they are, it wouldn't be prudent to wait," said Peter Rosasco, the district's accountant, who plans to recommend that the district move forward with refinancing the loan.
That, however, may not forestall eventual rate increases, as sewer assessments drop off and the district must rely mostly on revenue from monthly bills. The average residential bill is $60 a month for usage.
"The loan was structured [with the balloon payment] because we took the state at their word when they committed to funding the wastewater projects in 2006 and then again in 2008," district Manager Margaret Blank said. "Once assessment collections drop off, we might be looking at higher rates."
But board member Steve Gibbs isn't convinced that refinancing now is a good idea. The district has three years to secure $21 million in funding from the state or federal agencies, he said.
He said rate payers don't need to worry about a rate hike at this time.
"Let's wait and see," Gibbs said. "I need to be convinced the interest rates are going to go up [before voting to refinance.] We don't need to panic."
Blank says she is aggravated by what she describes as funding disparities among unincorporated Monroe County wastewater projects.
"I am currently working with county staff to get a handle on the numbers," she said. "I have also raised the issue with [County] Commissioner [Sylvia] Murphy."