For retirees on a fixed income and struggling families scraping by in this economy the thought of having to pay more for their water and sewer bill will seem like another thoughtless government assault on their pocketbook.
The needed upgrades to the county’s system could exceed $12 billion over 15 years, according to Water and Sewer Director John Renfrow.
As it is, the immediate need is likely to be $1.4 billion to update three water-treatment plants in Goulds, North Miami and Virginia Key and replace brittle water lines that are in some cases 50 years old throughout the county — all to meet federal and state regulators’ demands that the county stop violating the Clean Water Act and the terms of the discharge permit.
That’s Step. 1. There is no alternative but to pay up and get going after decades of neglect and a county penchant for taking money out of the sewer fund to balance the county’s overall budget.
Step. 2: The county needs a long-range plan that is continuously updating water and sewer lines.
Right now, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has projected a 9-percent rate hike in the water bill for the 2013-14 fiscal year, followed by 6 percent increases for three years after that. But for this year, no increase, which should be reconsidered. As Commissioner Lynda Bell suggested at a recent meeting, increasing water rates gradually, starting now, would be best.
A mix of bonds and higher water bills will have to cover the costs of this long-term project, and build reserves so that in another 20 years the county isn’t scrambling again to catch up and creating a potential public health crisis in the process.
Mr. Renfrow said the first bond issue of $300 million, which commissioners would have to approve, would be needed by this coming spring. That money would be used to start work on the most critical portions in disrepair, those now in federal regulators’ crosshairs.
Mr. Gimenez, a fiscal conservative, has to lead on this issue if he wants to attract new industries to the county that offer better paying jobs. Sunshine and surf only go so far. The mayor and county commissioners would be wise to have a consistent get-the-word-out campaign to constituents about why the upgrades are needed and what’s at stake if we delay.
Tourism, for one, would be a bust if pipes keep failing. Imagine what a major break in sewer lines would do to Miami Beach, which already has experienced several sewer breakdowns in the past few years. Imagine that it would happen during the winter months when international tourists come for arts festivals and shows. About 100 miles of substandard piping laid out by a now-defunct company, including the sewer main running under Government Cut to Virginia Key, are a catastrophe in the making for this area’s tourism.
There’s no time to waste, and the cities that run their own systems must work with the county in a coordinated way to get it done.
Just in the past two years alone, the county’s antiquated system of 7,500 miles of sewer lines has ruptured more than 65 times, with 47 million gallons of untreated human waste seeping onto streets and into waterways from far South Dade to the Broward County line, according to environmental regulators. The health of Biscayne Bay, a recreational draw for locals and tourists alike, is imperiled, too.
Upgrading the entire system — and keeping up with repairs as needed into the future — is a public health issue and an economic imperative. Get going.