Miami-Dade commissioners swallowed hard medicine Tuesday, approving an agreement with the federal and state governments to settle violations of environmental laws and committing $1.6 billion over the next 15 years to fix the county’s antiquated water and sewer pipes.
“Any world-class city has good infrastructure, and the most important infrastructure in any city is its water and sewer,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez told the board. “Without water, we can’t live. Without getting rid of wastewater, then we’re susceptible to disease.”
The agreement, called a consent decree, will force the county to upgrade its leaky sewage system following violations of laws such as the federal Clean Water Act.
In addition to the $1.6 billion in repairs, the county will have to incur other expenses, including $15 million to cover maintenance and management costs, $2 million over five years from general-obligation bond funds to install sewers in an industrial and commercial area north of the Miami River to reduce water pollution, a one-time $978,100 civil fine and $825,000 to hire an outside monitor to oversee the decree’s implementation.
The county has been negotiating the agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection since February 2012. Without it, the federal and state governments could impose steeper penalties on Miami-Dade.
The agencies must now approve the agreement and send it to a federal judge in Miami, who must also OK it.
Commissioners signed off on the agreement by a 12-1 vote. Commissioner Javier Souto was the lone dissenter, saying he could not support likely water-rate hikes over the next few years to finance some of the repairs. Miami-Dade residents can’t afford it, he argued.
“We suffer from an appetite for caviar and a pocketbook for picadillo,” Souto said, referring to the traditional Cuban ground-beef dish.
But his colleagues, while asking Gimenez’s administration to come up with alternatives to the rate hikes, said the repairs must move forward.
“It’s not easy — no one likes it — but we have to be serious about our job,” Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said.
The administration projects that quarterly water bills, which have long been among the lowest in the nation, will rise about 33 percent over the next five years, to $185 from $135. Gimenez plans to propose an initial 8 percent hike in next year’s budget, with additional increases over the next four years.
None of the commissioners who spoke were pleased with the looming increase for next year, but Commissioner Lynda Bell called for perspective, saying the hike would be “cheaper than a Starbucks cup of coffee per month.”
Commissioners also gave preliminary approval Tuesday to issuing $4.2 billion in bonds to finance the first phase of the improvements. The county has about $160 million in bond money already available for sewer upgrades.
The board’s finance committee had delayed a vote on the bonds last week, saying they wanted more information. Sosa sponsored a special meeting last Thursday at which county staff explained the details of the federal mandate.
The consent decree only covers sewage projects, John Renfrow, director of the county’s water and sewer department, told commissioners. Miami-Dade needs at least $11 billion more in other improvements, he added.
The Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, an activist group focused on keeping the bay waters clean, had asked to weigh in on the decree at Tuesday’s meeting. But no public hearing was scheduled, and Sosa, citing the group’s involvement in the federal government’s lawsuit against the county that resulted in the decree, declined to let the activists speak.
The group wants Miami-Dade to take sea-level rise and storm surge into account as it fixes the pipe system.
In other business Tuesday, commissioners reappointed the seven-member Financial Recovery Board that oversees the Jackson Health System.
The board will revert to its old name, the Public Health Trust, beginning June 1. Current members were reappointed to staggered terms except for Miami attorney Stephen Nuell, who resigned earlier Tuesday over accusations that he violated ethics rules.
Tuesday’s meeting was not held in the usual commission chambers at County Hall.
Instead, it took place at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay as part of Sosa’s effort to bring the meetings closer to residents. Some 286 people attended the meeting, according to venue operators, but the vast majority were county staff.
The cost to hold the meeting off-site, Sosa’s office said: $15,000.