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Islamorada wants to reopen sewer talks with Key Largo

Just when everyone thought that Islamorada and Key Largo were through, it looks like they might be getting back together.

Angered over a lowball counter-offer over the cost of sharing wastewater treatment, commissioners with the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District last month ended negotiations with Islamorada councilmen and village staff. Key Largo said connecting to its treatment system would cost Islamorada $11.5 million. The five-member village council came back with an offer of $3 million.

The deal appeared over — until now.

Four of the Islamorada councilman now say they regret the counteroffer and want to start talks again. Councilman Don Achenberg said he spoke to Key Largo wastewater commissioners this week, asking them to reconsider their decision to end talks.

“I voiced my concern that we as a council made a mistake in making the offer we did. [Wastewater commission chairman Robert Majeska] told me it was a closed door, but it could be open again,” Achenberg told his colleagues at a July 12 budget meeting.

Wastewater district commissioners Majeska and Andy Tobin want to make a deal with Key Largo because they say handling the extra flow would help Key Largo’s treatment plant run better, and money from Islamorada would help fund the $150-million system. But commissioners Charles Brooks and Norm Higgins have opposed a deal.

Commissioner Susan Hammaker favors an agreement, but she voted with Brooks and Higgins last month to end talks following the $3-million counter-offer.

Achenberg said negotiations could be revived if Hammaker is convinced Islamorada is willing to meet or come close to meeting Key Largo’s $11.5 million price tag.

“The key to this is Susan Hammaker’s vote,” Achenberg said Tuesday.

Hammaker said in an interview that she believes Key Largo and Islamorada will eventually come to an agreement, but she doesn’t want any more of what she calls “monkey business” from the village council.

“Eventually, I think this will happen. I’d be happy to bring it up, but under very specific and specified conditions,” Hammaker said. She said one of these conditions is that Islamorada would be a customer of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District, and not a member.

The village council was expected to write a letter at its meeting Thursday night stating its intent to pay the $11.5 million to Key Largo, unless the five companies that are in the process of designing the four-island town’s wastewater system determine treating wastewater locally makes more financial sense.

The companies’ plans are due by Aug. 31. The meeting happened after The Reporter’s deadline on Thursday.

As part of the “opt-out clause,” the village council also wants to tell wastewater commissioners that if the engineering companies determine Key Largo is more expensive, then the $11.5 million should be negotiable.

Mayor Michael Reckwerdt said he still has issues with the amount, especially if Islamorada isn’t really willing to pay it.

“I still think $11.5 million is too high. It’s disingenuous to say ‘here is 11.5 but we don’t want to pay 11.5,’” he said Tuesday.

Most of the companies bidding for the Islamorada project so far have publicly told village council members that the Key Largo option is too expensive and fraught with risk.

With the exception of the north Plantation Key treatment plant, Islamorada has not planned to build a wastewater treatment system, which the state Cabinet has decided must be completed by December 2015.

Key Largo is in the final stages of having all homes and businesses, except the private Ocean Reef community on North Key Largo, connected to its system.

Budget issues

The issue with Key Largo came up during the second of several planned workshop meetings the village council will hold to discuss the 2011-2012 budget.

Council members on June 22 agreed to a proposed property tax rate of $2.52 per $1,000 of taxable property value. That rate would generate the same amount of property tax revenue next fiscal year as the current year’s rate of $2.28 per $1,000.

The village’s proposed operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, is about $9.35 million.