florida keys real estateFlorida Keys Issues

Article from KeysNews.net by Charlotte Twine Free Press Staff

FLORIDA KEYS: KEY LARGO — In 2016, leaders in the community are looking forward to securing state funding, addressing the affordable housing problem, fixing flood-prone roads, and creating a new park and a welcome center.

State Rep. Holly Raschein, Florida Keys R-Key Largo, is starting the new year very focused on one big project.

“The biggest issue I will be working on is passing the Florida Keys Stewardship Act,” she told the Free Press.

Along with several Monroe County leaders, she made many trips to Tallahassee in the final months of 2015 to lobby for passage of the bill, which would bring $25 million a year to the county in state funding for 10 years.

“This bill, which I have introduced for the 2016 legislative session, will create a dedicated funding source for critical water quality and water supply projects, as well as land acquisition in the Florida Keys,” she said, adding that she feels somewhat hopeful for the bill’s passage.

“I’ve had really positive feedback thus far from my colleagues in Tallahassee,” she said.

If the bill is passed, the Florida Keys Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District could see as much as $5 million from the state in 2016.

“[This money] will assist with our construction projects and ultimately help with our debt reduction,” said the district’s general manager, Paul Christian, who seeks this year to focus on “rate reduction through debt management,” he told the Free Press.

Christian was one of the local leaders who went to Tallahassee to lobby for the state funds with Raschein in 2015, and he will be doing more of the same in the nation’s capital in 2016.

“We are working with the Florida Keys Islamorada and Marathon leadership in securing additional federal funds under the Florida Keys Water Quality Improvement Plan,” he said. “We will be traveling together to meet with key leaders in Washington, D.C., in January to tell our story. In the past two years, this trip has brought $2 million each year to our combined entities. We’re hoping for the same or better results this year.”

In addition, Christian looks forward to moving into the district’s new, million-dollar administration building in April or May.

KLWTD Commissioner Steve Gibbs also wants to reduce monthly sewer rates for Florida Keys Key Largo residents and agrees that securing funding from the county, the state and the federal government would help to pay down the debt that’s raising the rates.

He also wants “to find a community-minded public servant who has Florida Keys Key Largo at heart to run for a vacant seat on the district board,” he told the Free Press, referring to Commissioner Robby Majeska’s seat.

Likewise, Majeska made this shout-out: “I would really like some viable candidates to step forward and apply for the position. … If you have some financial understanding and are able to put the needs of the community above the wants of the special interests, please contact me.”

Majeska plans to step down in order to challenge Sylvia Murphy for her county commission seat in the fall.

Majeska and Gibbs also agreed on the need to find a wastewater-treatment solution for the residents of Cross Key, the Florida Keys Key Largo neighborhood at mile marker 112. The final board meetings at the end of 2015 found the commissioners wracking their brains about a cost-effective answer to this problem.

KLWTD Commissioner Andy Tobin has a different focus from his colleagues in the new year.

“My challenge for 2016 will be the same as 2015,” he told the Free Press. “Trying to convince my fellow commissioners to have an open mind to consider privatizing the management of the operations division — the treatment plant and the collections department.”

In October 2015, Tobin called for Severn Trent, a company that operates the Islamorada sewer system as a subcontractor, to make a presentation to the board about taking over daily operations. The idea was eventually rejected by his colleagues.

“The advantage to the district is we get professional management of our $150 million advanced wastewater treatment system, and Florida Keys Key Largo gets immediate help in the event of a catastrophe (hurricane, spill, etc.),” he said. “Also, [the district’s] employees have little to fear from privatization because treatment operators and qualified collections persons are in short supply.”

There have been less differences of opinion among the board members of the Florida Keys Key Largo fire district.

“All is going smoothly, knock on wood,” Commissioner Bob Thomas said.

He said that in 2016 the Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services District will continue with the installation of as many fire hydrants as possible. At this time, 15 more are scheduled.

Also, “we will pursue the feasibility of the Tavernier community’s request to join our fire district,” he said.

The district last mulled this over in November at a public workshop. Tavernier activists had asked for the merger of the Tavernier Volunteer Fire Department with the Key Largo district at a district board meeting in August over concerns of Tavernier’s higher property tax rate for fire-EMS services provided by the county.

At this workshop, all parties agreed that it would be a long road of discussing whether this would be economically feasible for Key Largo. Another workshop is planned in early 2016.

And perhaps in 2016 Thomas will find out what will happen to his request at a December KLWTD board meeting to have the fire district’s $37,000 in sewer assessments waived. At that board meeting, KLWTD General Counsel Ray Giglio said to Thomas, “I have to get back to you.”

County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy hasn’t forgotten about the nuisance flooding in Key Largo that kept many frustrated constituents underwater in the fall of 2015. Her top project for 2016?

“Road work, with a priority on the flooded roads,” she told the Free Press. “The flooded roads have been impacting people’s lives.”

She said the lack of affordable housing is also affecting the lives of the people in the county, and as such is another top project for her.

In 2014, the county bought the 8-acre Rowell’s Marina at mile marker 104 for $5 million. Murphy would like to see more progress this year in turning that bayfront land into a passive park.

“We got money for bathrooms and a parking lot,” she said. “Half the money came from the Florida Department of Transportation. We need picnic tables and shade structures. Then we’ll have a place people can go. This will happen this year, or you’ll hear me screaming.”

Key Largo Chamber of Commerce Vice President Elizabeth Moscynski says the chamber also wants to provide a place for people to go in 2016.

“We will be focusing on our Visitor Center,” she told the Free Press. “We have received state certification from VisitFlorida and are transforming it into a Welcome Center.”

Tourists may be attracted to it because Key Largo is the first destination they enter in the Keys if they are traveling down Overseas Highway from the mainland.

Moscynski said the chamber is working on a piece of art for the building, and neighbors near the mile marker 106 location may want to take note: “All I can say is it is definitely going to have the tourists stop for a photo.”

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