Latest News

Miami-Dade commissioners sign off on initial fee hike to pay for water, sewer repairs

Miami-Dade commissioners gave the go-ahead Tuesday for the county to raise its water and sewer fees to help pay for a multi-billion dollar plan to repair an antiquated water and sewer system.

Fees will go up by 8 percent in the 2014 budget year beginning Oct. 1. That money is projected to raise $30 million a year to back $4.25 billion in bonds — also authorized Tuesday — to fix the county’s crumbling pipes and pump stations.

The initial fee hike will amount to an additional $3.36 per month for the average residential user, according to county administrators, increasing the monthly bill to $45.39 from $42.03. Water and sewer bills are issued every three months.

Over the next five years, county residents could see the typical quarterly bill rise to $180 from $135, or an increase of 33 percent. More fee hikes are expected after the 2014 budget.

“We want to keep our rates as low as possible,” said Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who characterized the increase as necessary. Last year, Gimenez’s budget projected a 9 percent hike for the 2014 budget.

Commissioners last month approved a major agreement with the federal and state governments to settle the county’s violations of environmental laws. The settlement, called a consent decree, requires Miami-Dade to commit $1.6 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its sewer system.

Had the county not signed the agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, those agencies could have imposed steeper penalties on Miami-Dade.

Commissioners were less than happy about having to impose the fee hike. They blamed past commissions for not investing in the aging system and said the improvements could be put off no longer.

“There’s a trend here: Don’t do anything,” Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said of his predecessors. “Sooner or later somebody will sue you and force you to do it.”

“It’s distasteful,” he said of the hike. “I get it. But let’s move forward already.”

Emilio Azoy, who represents unionized workers at the water and sewer department, praised commissioners for swallowing the bitter fee-hike pill.

“For years, we have not had the resources we need” to maintain the pipes, he said before his statement was cut short due to board-imposed speaking time limits. “Rates have been held low for political reasons.”

The board voted 12-1 for the increase, with Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell, Bovo and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss, Xavier Suarez and Juan C. Zapata voting in favor.

Commissioner Javier Souto voted against. “It concerns me because in my community there’s a lot of poor people, too,” he said.

Water and sewer department administrators said fees for low-volume users who use less than 3,740 gallons of water a month would remain unchanged.

Souto and Suarez voted against the measure authorizing the issuance of the $4.25 billion worth of bonds, with Suarez questioning whether the board should OK the full amount all at once and whether the fee hikes would be able to back the bond sale. Gimenez and his deputies said their estimates were “conservative” to ensure the additional fee money would suffice.

Not all the bonds will be issued at the same time. Each portion sold by the administration will require prior commission approval. On Tuesday, the board approved the first $350 million sale, with Souto casting the lone dissenting vote.

The longest discussion related to the water and sewer fixes came over a pair of bid solicitations seeking firms to oversee and manage the projects. Gimenez took the extraordinary step last month of canceling the bids that been advertised after several commissioners complained that they had not had a say in the matter.

Underscoring the political weight of the large solicitations, commissioners on Tuesday continued questioning the administration over how many local and small businesses might be able to participate in the bids.

In the end, the board approved two amendments to the solicitations. The first, intended to dissuade selection committee members from giving an unusually high or low score to a bidder, will require the committee to throw out the highest and lowest bid scores.

The second, intended to insulate commissioners from lobbyists for the major firms that will likely vie for the contracts, will require the mayor to immediately sign the solicitations. That means the so-called cone of silence that prohibits firms from contacting elected officials regarding open bids will begin sooner — as early as this week.

Also Tuesday, the board:

• Delayed until September a Bovo-sponsored measure directing the elections department to make online absentee-ballot request forms more secure. The recommendation was proposed by a Miami-Dade grand jury in December.

• Delayed for at least another two weeks a vote on what to do with the approximately $2 million left over from the Miami Dolphins’ proposed referendum on public funding for stadium renovations. Commissioners and the mayor have conflicting proposals for the money unspent from the Dolphins’ nearly $4.8 million payment to cover costs for the election before it was canceled.

• Approved a request from the transit department to pay nearly $240,000 to MDI/The Start Group, a company hired to train employees between 2010 and 2011. The contract was supposed to be covered by a federal grant. But because the department did not follow proper rules to select and hire the firm — for example, it did not allow for competitive bidding — the expense was not eligible for reimbursement.

The problem was detected after new safeguards were put into place when the department came under review by the Federal Transit Administration. Police investigated and concluded no employees received improper benefits but rather that procurement rules were not followed, Director Ysela Llort told commissioners.

“This one is a confluence of a ton of errors,” she said. “We were out of compliance with our own regulations.’’