ISLAMORADA -- The governor's office said it is willing to support funding for sewer construction, but not debt payment, during a Monday morning meeting between Florida Keys politicians and Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth.
The meeting, which included elected officials and staff from most of the Keys' municipalities as well as County Commissioners George Neugent, David Rice and Sylvia Murphy, lasted about an hour. According to meeting attendees, Neugent was the only county politician who spoke to avoid violating state open meeting laws. The meeting was closed to the press.
How to secure state funding and finish building county-wide sewer projects led the discussion. The Keys are under a state mandate to connect to centralized sewer systems by December 2015. Marathon and Key Largo have mostly completed their projects and are carrying debt of $60 million and $81 million, respectively. Earlier this year, Islamorada began pipeline work to connect to Key Largo's treatment plant. More recently, the county's Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System serving the Lower Keys got underway.
"Everyone knows who's getting what," state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, said after the meeting.
Raschein was unsuccessful this spring in securing a second $50 million installment from a $200 million grant previously approved by the state Legislature for sewer infrastructure. This came after her party's leadership refused to bond out any new debt during the legislative session.
County Administrator Roman Gastesi said the county could take a "fungibility" approach to help Marathon and Key Largo pay down sewer debt. This, he explained, means the county could receive the state money earmarked for new projects that create jobs and shift other funding around to help the two areas address their sewer debt.
During the past legislative session, the county had interlocal agreements with Marathon and Key Largo that would have provided each with $20 million in state funding. However, the money was to be used for debt not new construction, which needs to be changed, Gastesi said.
"We only met one of those criteria this last time," he said.
Marathon City Manager Roger Hernstadt sounded optimistic after the meeting.
"One way or another, we're going to get the money," he said.
The Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District had hoped to use state funding for a $20 million balloon payment due in 2017. Key Largo officials now expect they will have to refinance that loan.
"I hope we can work smarter," Key Largo district Manager Margaret Blank said. "It's ours to lose at this point."
If the county gets state grant money for new projects, Blank said she is going to make sure Key Largo is protected under an interlocal agreement.
The local group of politicians is expected to meet next month to review their progress.