Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade commission could set aside $126 million for new sewer pipes

Miami-Dade County may have found a way to extend sewer lines crucial for new or growing businesses to commercial and industrial corridors that lack service.

To pay for a portion of the pricey new pipes and pump stations, the government would use $126 million in voter-approved funds for unspecified Water and Sewer Department projects.

That money would bring sewer access to about 2,200 properties out of some 3,000 in older county neighborhoods that now rely on septic tanks. Some businesses currently cannot expand or open in those areas because they are unable to discharge commercial or industrial waste.

County commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday on the proposal sponsored by Jean Monestime. His district, which includes Liberty City, Opa-locka and North Miami, has the most properties without sewer hookups, though there are similar pockets throughout Miami-Dade.

“My primary concern is about economic development,” Monestime said. “The way it is right now, there are many areas where business people would like to connect but they simply can’t. Those companies will simply move to a place where the infrastructure will already support their investment.”

Last July, commissioners signed off on Monestime’s request that the county come up with a plan for the new pipes.

Though the county is under a federal mandate from environmental regulators to spend $1.6 billion over the next 15 years to fix its crumbling sewer system, that agreement requires improving existing pipes and pump stations — not extending them to underserved communities. A single project in the consent decree would bring pipes to industrial properties along Northwest 37th Avenue north of 36th Street.

It would cost Miami-Dade about $284 million, divided among 29 projects, to build sewer lines for commercial and industrial properties clustered around major roads that don’t have them, according to a technical report issued in January by county consultant Black & Veatch. About $11 million is already included in the sewer department’s capital plan.

The consultant called the estimate conservative, saying the county could save some money in the design of the projects. Low-pressure systems where wastewater is moved by small pumps installed all along the pipes — as opposed to traditional systems where the wastewater moves thanks to gravity pulling it down sloping pipes — can be significantly less expensive to install, though more expensive for users.

The $284 million estimate, while daunting for the government, is far smaller than the $8.5 billion the county concluded last year that it would cost to outfit all residential and commercial properties with water or sewer access. Extending water pipes to properties that still rely on wells would be the most expensive undertaking.

But it’s the inability to connect to the sewer system that keeps businesses from expanding, which is why some commissioners have focused on seeing what the government can do to help at least some of those property owners. There’s a potential environmental benefit, too, the county says, since leaky septic tanks can pollute the drinking-water supply.

A larger sewer system would be more costly for the county to maintain, which could eventually lead to higher rates for customers, Mayor Carlos Gimenez acknowledged in an April memo outlining the January report. But it would be for good reason, he said.

“While these projects are not required by any regulatory mandate, they are consistent with the ongoing effort to upgrade our entire regional sewer system in support of both economic recovery and environmental protection,” Gimenez wrote.

Because the revenue that new piping brings to the county is far less than what it costs to put the lines in, Miami-Dade typically requires private developers to add the plumbing when they build on undeveloped land and then donate the infrastructure to the county. Yet that approach has left holes in dense neighborhoods built before the 1970s where no new, major development is in the works.

Some businesses have asked about paying for the pipes themselves. But the cost is too high, owners have said.

Miami-Dade can’t raise rates to cover the costs of new piping because, under county law, customers can only be charged for their share of existing service and not for future service for other properties.

The report also found that while not all properties could be connected to the system — some are too isolated — the county could consider investing in seven corridors: Northwest Seventh Avenue, Northwest 22nd Avenue, Northwest 79th Street, Northeast Second Avenue, Biscayne Boulevard, Southwest 40th Street and South Dixie Highway.

For funding, the report identified the $126 million that voters paid for as part of the $2.9 billion Building Better Communities bonds approved in a 2004 election. Any additional money would have to come from other sources, such as a special taxing district or a rate surcharge. Some bond funds have been used in the past to bring the sewer system to properties along U.S. 1 in the South Dade neighborhoods of Perrine and Cutler Ridge.

What worries some commissioners is that if the county spends more bond money on extending sewer lines, the funds will no longer be available for other projects that could be identified down the line.

“That concerns me,” Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, the chairman of the infrastructure committee, said last month. “We may be losing some important projects there that we need to take care of.”

The county should target properties where businesses have already said they intend hook up to new pipes once they become available, Zapata said. Otherwise, Miami-Dade might spend the money to extend the lines but find little demand to connect to the service.

Bill Johnson, the sewer department’s new director, told the infrastructure committee that it makes sense for the county to invest in a need that exists in all but three of the county’s 13 commission districts.

Even if only a portion of the properties without sewer access gets help from the government, that could spur some economic development in the private sector, Johnson said.

“This is the direction we should be taking this department,” he said. “We should be looking for smart ways, intelligent ways, to really get the money out the door.”