The Monroe County Commission agreed to move forward on $38 million in capital improvement projects over the next five years, including buying Rowell's Marina in Key Largo and taking over the Old Seven Mile Bridge from the state.
Commissioners voted on the projects Tuesday at the first budget hearing of the year. The 2013-14 fiscal year budget will be finalized in September, as the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
Monroe County Commissioner Danny Kolhage was the only one against buying Rowell's and taking over the old bridge, saying there was not enough information on the long-term financial ramifications to make informed decisions right now. He called the projects "opportunities," not needs.
"I have a disagreement with those projects being put on the five-year plan," Kolhage said. "Let's vote on this so I can be voted down and we can move on."
County Mayor George Neugent announced that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) tentatively agreed to put more money toward retrofitting the Old Seven Mile Bridge. FDOT initially agreed to pay half of the $18 million cost, but now has offered to pay for nearly 85 percent of the project if the county takes ownership of the bridge and maintains it. The county's share of the retrofit work would be cut to $2.7 million, Neugent said.
"This project is still in negotiations," Commissioner David Rice said. "I think what we are saying is that we will be reviewing this in the future. If the (inspection) reports say it is a disaster, I will be the first to say that I don't support it."
Kolhage is concerned about the condition of the bridge below the waterline and the ongoing cost of maintaining the bridge, he said.
"To get rid of it for $18 million would be a bargain for FDOT," Kolhage said.
The commission agreed to set aside $2.7 million to retrofit the Old Seven Mile Bridge project, $6 million for the purchase of Rowell's Marina, $1 million to move the road in front of Higgs Beach, $3.2 million to improve Bernstein Park on Stock Island, $3 million to build a new Marathon library and $1 million to make the Big Pine swimming hole a passive park.
The commission also agreed to set aside $10.6 million to replace the Plantation Key jail and courthouse, $1.9 million to purchase eight new fire rescue vessels, $4.5 million to build a new fire station on Summerland Key, $1.2 million to build a firefighter training academy on Crawl Key and $1.5 million to replace the county's dispatch and communications systems.
About $33 million of the money needed to fund the projects would come from a county infrastructure fund, and the county would borrow the rest, County Administrator Roman Gastesi said.
The County Commission also tentatively approved Gastesi giving certain county employees a 3 percent merit raise. Department heads would evaluate their employees to determine if they qualified for the raise.
The commission has not set a tentative property tax rate, as the county Property Appraiser's Office has not yet certified the property values for the year. Commissioners will hold special budget workshops on July 29 and 30. The county will begin its final budget hearings on Sept. 4.