Miami-Dade County, under a federal government mandate for neglecting its water and sewer system, will spend $1.6 billion over the next decade and a half to upgrade its decrepit underground pipes.
But those pricey renovations will not accomplish what some property owners have been pleading for for years: to extend the lines to pockets of the county still stuck with water wells and septic tanks that have hindered business growth.
To expand the system to all residential and commercial properties would cost a lot more — about $8.5 billion, according to a cost estimate prepared by the water and sewer department.
The county does not have that kind of cash. But some commissioners say Miami-Dade should consider tackling at least some of the expansion in more manageable pieces, beginning with the about $230 million it would cost to bring sewer pipes to commercial and industrial areas.
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On Tuesday, commissioners are scheduled to vote on a proposal to develop a plan to run the sewer pipes to major commercial and industrial corridors across the county, including Northwest 79th Street, Biscayne Boulevard, Northwest Seventh Avenue, Northwest 27th Avenue, Southwest 40th Street and South Dixie Highway.
The plan would be incorporated into the water and sewer department’s five-year capital program, according to the proposal sponsored by Commissioner Jean Monestime, whose district includes the largest patches of land without access to the piping system.
“They find the cost impossibly expensive, so instead of business coming to these corridors, some of them decide to go elsewhere,” he said. “These urban corridors have had a hard time attracting investment.”
Among the property owners Monestime has heard from is Glenn Wyatt, owner for 35 years of Dynamic Power Hydraulic, a hydraulic vehicle engine repair business in the Bunn Crest subdivision near Brownsville. His business, on Northwest 69th Street near 32nd Avenue, is on a septic tank. He owns an adjacent parcel that he cannot develop because it has no sewer hookup, and health regulations prohibit him from getting a septic-tank permit, he said.
“We’re right now limited to five employees. If we were able to get the sewer in there and we could build another building, then we could probably expand — then we could probably have at least 10 employees,” Wyatt said.
It’s not just in Monestime’s district — which encompasses much of Liberty City, Opa-locka and North Miami — where businesses are hurting for water and sewer hookups.
The directors of MWL Engineering, a precision metal-work plant just outside South Miami, have been asking the county for five years to install sewer lines in their street.
The company, which sits in the middle of a warehouse district off U.S. 1, bought a building adjacent to its plant to grow its business. But it has been unable to purchase equipment to powder-coat the metal pieces it produces because county environmental regulations would require the new machine to be connected to a sewer pipe.
So MWL has put its plan to hire up to 10 new workers — growing its workforce of 48 by almost 20 percent — on hold. The company continues to send its pieces elsewhere to be coated and then brings them back to assemble.
“We’re stuck,” said Cristina Espinosa, the company’s chief financial officer. “We cannot bring in more jobs without bringing in more business, and we cannot bring more business unless we’re able to implement the powder-coating.”
Espinosa said MWL hosted a campaign lunch two years ago for the commissioner who represented the area, Carlos Gimenez, who was then running for county mayor, to explain the company’s sewer needs.
In April, she wrote a letter to the district’s current commissioner, Xavier Suarez, and to local members of Congress noting that President Barack Obama emphasized manufacturing jobs in his State of the Union address, and imploring the county to consider extending the pipes when it begins a planned water drainage project.
“It’s a no-brainer,” she said.
Because extending the pipes is so expensive, the county has long depended on developers to pay for the new infrastructure when they build on undeveloped land and then “donate” the pipes to the county, water and sewer department Director John Renfrow has explained to commissioners. Some general-obligation bond money may be available to fund limited system expansions, he has said. Special taxing districts can also pay for the expansion.
The $1.6 billion federal consent decree commissioners approved last month, which will be paid for by bonds backed by water-rate hikes for consumers, only addresses fixes to existing, antiquated pipes. And Miami-Dade needs an additional $12 billion in other improvements to its current system — a figure that does not include extending the lines to properties without access.
Add to that the more than $8.5 billion it would cost to extend water and sewer pipes to all residential and commercial properties, and “it would be about $20 billion to get there,” Renfrow said last month.
The federal agreement does include one project to extend sewer pipes to industrial properties along Northwest 37th Avenue north of 36th Street, he added.
The department’s cost estimate, released in April and partially updated this month, showed it would be most expensive to extend water — not sewer — pipes to the 100 commercial properties across the county that do not have access to them. Price tag: about $5.8 billion. The estimate included vacant properties in built-out neighborhoods but not in undeveloped swaths of the county.
Bringing sewer pipes to the more than 93,000 residential properties on septic tanks could cost about $2.3 billion. More than 3,600 residential properties that rely on well water could be put on water lines at a cost of about $243 million.
But the most pressing need is extending sewer lines to the more than 7,500 commercial properties that cannot discharge business and industrial waste into their septic tanks, according to Monestime’s proposal, which is co-sponsored by Commissioner Audrey Edmonson. The water and sewer department initially estimated that price tag at $386 million but this month lowered the figure to about $230 million.
Monestime, who requested the cost estimate in September, said last month the county is losing out on new business — in some cases in its core near Miami International Airport and major transportation arteries — by keeping them disconnected from the sewer system.
“We cannot continue having this,” he said.