The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Miami-Dade water fee must increase for health’s sake

When the subject of raw sewage comes up, the typical response is, well, ew! But the leaders and residents of Miami-Dade County cannot ignore this most basic of infrastructure issues — how to deal with a decrepit sewage-treatment system. The wake-up call came when the U.S. Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency sued the county last December for violating the Clean Water Act because of frequent sewage spills into Biscayne Bay and other waterways.

This was only the latest in a running dispute between regulators and the county over the sad state of its three sewage treatment plants and thousands of miles of pipes. The county promised in a consent decree more than a decade ago to fix its leaky sewage system, but the effort only went as far as the money lasted. So federal regulators once again have clamped down.

From 2010 to 2012, charge the feds, the county’s sewage system ruptured at least 65 times, spewing more than 47 million gallons of untreated sewage into waterways and streets. Worst is the Central District Wastewater Plant on Virginia Key, whose four spills dumped 19 million gallons of raw sewage over the two years. Fix the whole system or else face huge daily fines, the county was told.

To their credit, both Mayor Carlos Gimenez and the County Commission took the feds seriously. For a proposed new consent decree, the commission two weeks ago preliminarily approved selling $4.25 billion in bonds to help pay for its 12-year, $12.6 billion plan to fix crumbling pipes and upgrade three treatment plants.

But bonds alone can’t shoulder this costly, necessary burden. The commission also agreed to raise water and sewage rates from 5 to 8 percent annually over the next five years, meaning a total increase of 33 percent. This could raise a homeowners’ quarterly bill to $180 from about $135. In fact, Mayor Gimenez has proposed an 8-percent increase in next year’s budget, a painful but needed hike.

Miami-Dade residents have long enjoyed some of the lowest water bills in the country, a result of political reluctance to raise rates, and thus also voters’ ire. But this self-serving expediency has now backfired, with the deterioration of the system for lack of proper funding.

The county also liked to dip into the water and sewer department’s funds to fatten its general revenue take, making things worse. Mr. Gimenez has promised not to let that happen anymore, at least for now.

The repair plan has run into typical county bidding politics and an environmental flap over the Virginia Key plant. The mayor rejected county administrators’ bid solicitations for parts of the plan, ordering a re-do. And last week a commission committee stalled the bond plan, saying that questions remain unanswered. OK, but the commission and mayor need to settle these issues quickly. The county only has until June 24 to sign the federal consent decree.

Such machinations are routine with fat county contracts. At more than $12 billion, this is a huge deal. It’s imperative that the mayor and commissioners keep the bidding process transparent and free of favoritism.

The environmental group Biscayne Bay Watersavers has won a legal battle to demand that the county assess projected storm surge and sea rise before upgrading the Virginia Key plant. They rightly point to the damage Hurricane Sandy inflicted in New York City, where 10 billion gallons of sewage inundated streets and waterways. Of course, these threats should be assessed.

So far, county leaders have reacted to the crisis responsibly — they owe that and more to taxpayers, who will ultimately bear the brunt of the costly fix-up plan.

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