Board General Island Services

LGI Sewer Project – Update

Last month we sent membership the questions and answers from our meeting with Jack Boyer from Environmental Utilities (EU).  If you missed them they are posted on the website at LGPOA.org.  Here’s what we’ve learned since then.

  1. Early in December we spoke with Jack again via conference call to clarify some information and ask additional questions. In an effort to share the information and discuss options, the minutes of the special board meeting held 12/3/20 are below.

12/03/2020

A special meeting of the board was held to discuss Barb’s letter to Charlotte County regarding Environmental Utilities (EU). In addition to the letter, the number of comments and questions received by board members prompted Richard and Rhonda to speak to Jack to get clarification, the question and answer below is the result of their conversation.

Present: Richard Leydon, Rhonda Olson (phone), Paul Holmes, Joe Bokar, Barb Dwyer (phone), Roy Petteway (phone), Laurie Tremblay (phone).

Q: Where did the sewer for LGI topic begin? Does LGI have to hook up to the mainland? https://www.charlottecountyfl.gov/departments/utilities

A:  1. The County Sewer Master Plan (SMP) explains the need and shows the scoring system and the studies that back it up.  Link: Charlotte County SMP

    1. On the Charlotte County website look under water and wastewater.  Link: https://www.charlottecountyfl.gov/departments/utilities/
    1. DEP – private septic systems were taken away from the health department and given to DEP (this is making individual septic more expensive to maintain).

 Q: Can the county do the project? 

A: Yes, anytime they want to buy EU out. This can happen before the certification or after.      

Q: Is the county for profit too? 

A: The county has a utility director, he/she sets the budgets for growth, insurance and unexpected expenses with a 8-10% salary.  EU will have more expenses that the county would, the taxes and also more for the 3-man maintenance crew.  

Q: Would it be cheaper for the county to do the sewer project? 

A: EU believes he can get the construction done cheaper than the county can, but it’s too early to share exact numbers.

Q: If we can get the county to give up on the tangible taxes it would be cheaper for us? 

A: Yes, they’ve allowed this in some counties in Florida. It is .061% on 20,000,000 (tangible taxes), plus 4.5% on EU’s income. If we can accomplish this we can reduce the cost annually for each home.

Q: We heard Palm Island Homeowners Association (PIE) is not happy about this project? 

A: He said two people on the board were against it and the rest of the board members wanted to hear what he had to say.  His meeting is scheduled for December 14th, Richard has been in contact with the PIE president and is planning on attending the meeting.

Q: Who decides what system will be used, the SMP suggests a vacuum system, EU wants to install a low pressure system?

A: The engineer decides what system will go in by what’s cost effective. The system will be built to county standards. After EU’s certification with PSC, EU will have his engineer figure the cost of the vacuum system versus the low pressure grinder pump system since many islanders have questions.

Other information gained on the call from EU:

  • There will be a letter from Jack soon, public meetings in April regarding the project and a website built for everyone’s information.
  • Once Jack is granted the certificate from PSC, anyone that makes EU use his lawyer, makes our cost go up, because we (the customers) have to pay that bill. EU doesn’t pay it, we all do.
  • Knight Island Utility (Palm Island Resort) sent a letter of support to PSC. 

Concerns discussed:

The Sewer Master Plan targeted many areas of Charlotte County and when the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) took control of water quality issues it kick-started this project focusing on the governor’s recommendations to focus on the West, South, and North sectors.  Heat maps are colored coded to show prioritization and how each sector contributes to the problem.  Highest population density, age of septic systems and ground water quality were considered.

    1. Due to the length and complexity of the Master Plan, it won’t be read and suggested that to take the heat off the LGPOA and the Environmental Utility, LLC (EU), we provide a link to the 376 page County SMP pdf both on our website and the letter that will go out. 
      https://www.charlottecountyfl.gov/departments/utilities/sewer-master-plan.stml
    2. Was this project started by Jack when he filed with the Public Service Commission (PSC), or was it mandated somewhere?
      https://www.charlottecountyfl.gov/departments/utilities/
    3. Do the targeted areas have county or private utilities? The county can finance but EU doesn’t have the capabilities.
    4. Think of EU as a franchise when questioning if the utility can be bought or sold. Jack was granted the right to sell if he chooses to and the county has the right to purchase the rights if they choose. Currently there shouldn’t be many assets in EU. Jack previously stated the water company would sell for 12-15 million dollars or more. We would need to purchase both from Jack to make our own utility. Should we consider buying it with the other islands and running the utility ourselves like Boca Grande does? Who would build it, who would run it and what would we save? Or should we encourage the county to do so?
    5. Should we contact another utility company and see if there is interest in the project?
    6. The vacuum system cost is @$20,000 per homeowner on the mainland, but Jack is not giving information or facts on what he can do it for. He doesn’t know what grants he can qualify for yet. How can he say he can do it cheaper? The master plan is based on the vacuum system.    
    7. Will Jack be purchasing easements? Jack has easements for water. If the county comes in, things may change for our island. The fight over easements will delay the process and cost us more. Once we educate ourselves and LGPOA members we should try make sure it happens peacefully and cheaply.  A fight will cost more. Education is the key to understanding why this project is in front of us.
    8. Paul and Richard will attend the Palm Island Environmental (PIE) meeting on December 14th.
    9. Why not have the county go on the record that they can purchase EU at any time? In this letter to the county ask the county if it will be cheaper per resident if they do it. Barb is drafting the letter to the county for board approval.
    10. Why is Jack’s engineer being allowed to project costs for the two different systems? Do we need to hire our own engineer?
    11. If an email comes into a board member it should be shared with everyone on the board. The response you make needs only four approvals by board members to respond so we can reply to the members as quick as possible.
    12. How are the people in your district handling this news? Paul said from personal discussions and Facebook postings it appears the majority of the island providing input is not accepting of the sewer project and many questions were raised. Richard shared that feedback had been positive. Joe spoke to someone who was in favor because his septic needs to be replaced. Rhonda shared most admitted it was long overdue for the environment. Laurie said the biggest worry was the cost. Roy stated everyone he has talked to was against the project and they would pitch in to hire lawyers to fight the project. The rest of the board doesn’t think a lawyer is needed at this time.
  1. Since then we’ve spoken to Jennifer Crawford at Public Service Commission (PSC) 850-320-4255, Jennifer.crawford@psc.state.fl.us. Below are our findings:

On January 5th at 9:30am EU has a place on the agenda with PSC.

To get his certificate he needs to:

      1. Project initial rates
      2. Request the Certificate

She looked at the docket (20200226) and he does not have his information to request the certificate in yet. He needs his (1) legal descriptions together for addresses of notices and (2) notices sent 30 days prior to January 5th. He has neither done at this time.

She said that he can request a rule waiver to separate (bifurcate) the two requirements of PSC for EU (or any business asking for an original certificate). The rule waiver is done separately 30% of the time because the company doesn’t know rates yet. So Jack can ask to separate these two requirements and probably will on the 5th of January.

The soonest staff could bring the certificate portion of the application would be at the February 2nd Agenda, but that presumes a number of things: that all deficiencies are corrected, that there are no objections to the notice provided by the utility, and that the staff’s workload allows them to prepare a written recommendation in time to be filed. 

Below is the link to PSC, search docket number 20200226.
http://www.psc.state.fl.us/Conferences/CommissionConference

In order for EU to give islanders notice (which is a requirement before he can request the certificate):

      1. Each customer gets an individual notice 30 days prior to being on the agenda of PSC.
      2. Newspaper notice

Customers have 30 days from the last notice (1 or 2).

If we don’t want this to go forward we need to object to PSC in the 30 days, we can:

      1. Request an Administrative hearing (Trial in front of commissioners. Involves witnesses and discoveries). She suggests getting a lawyer if you want an Administrative Hearing, but you can see if OPC will represent you.  OPC is the Office of Public Counsel. They are made up of 5 or 6 attorneys and some accountants.  Their phone number is 850-488-9330. 
      2. Or you can sign up to comment on the agenda. If you take this route you can’t get an administrative hearing later.

Once the rule waiver is granted and the certificate is approved then he can go to DEP and CC to line up installation. 

She also confirmed that PSC controls EU’s rates.

  1. The LGPOA sent a letter to Charlotte County Commissioners Bill Truex and Hector Flores and the Charlotte County Utilities Director on 12/8/20 asking if they would handle the project.

To:  Charlotte County Commissioner Bill Truex
To:  Charlotte County Administrator Hector Flores
To:  Charlotte County Utilities Director Craig Rudy
Re:  Wastewater System for Little Gasparilla Island
Re:  Docket Number 20200226-WS at the Public Service Commission 

Commissioner Truex, County Administrator Flores, & Utilities Director Rudy

My name is Barbara Dwyer. I represent the Little Gasparilla Island Property Owners Association (LGPOA). We have concerns about the construction, operation, maintenance and cost of the wastewater system that is in the early planning stages with Charlotte County (CC), Environmental Utilities LLC (EU)and the Public Service Commission (PSC).

The LGPOA understands Little Gasparilla Island (LGI) and the surrounding areas are environmentally sensitive and would benefit from a wastewater system to curb the nutrient runoff from aging septic systems on the island. We are aware that CC put together a comprehensive Sewer Master Plan (SMP) in 2017 to address the issues. We also realize that CC has entered into an agreement with EU to potentially build and operate this system. We understand that the areas of Cape Haze, Don Pedro/Knight Island and LGI are under the scope of the EU agreement.

EU attended a meeting with the LGPOA Board to talk about upcoming plans and answer questions. The LGPOA has a number of concerns with this project that we are asking to be considered before finalizing any plans to proceed. 

      1. The recommendations in the 2017 Sewer Master Plan (SMP) are not being followed. Though the changes were discussed, there was not a formal plan written, or at least not shared with us, giving a true expectation of cost. All questions about pricing were answered with the costs are as yet undetermined. 
      2. The low pressure grinder pump wastewater system being suggested was claimed to have lower initial costs, but have higher operation & maintenance (O&M) costs than the recommended vacuum system. We were told the current septic tanks would be pumped, crushed & filled then replaced with a grinder, pump and tank. All maintenance would be performed by EU.  A little research indicated grinder pumps cost $4-5,000 and have an average life expectancy of 8 – 10 years. The grinder pump system will place higher energy demands on the island electric grid.  Monthly & annual maintenance will have to be performed. This is an expensive proposition for homeowners if pumps have to be replaced more frequently considering the corrosive nature of salt in the sea air.
      3. Based on the 2017 SMP, the vacuum system that was recommended by CC has proven to be reliable. The capital costs associated with the vacuum system are on par with the low pressure system. The O&M costs are less. There would be minimal outfall of wastewater in case a line breaks. There would be very little Infiltration & Inflow into the system. It is likely we could get federal grants to help with the higher installation costs of the vacuum system.  The higher O&M costs of the grinder pump low pressure system would be an ongoing burden to the homeowner.
      4. Historically, any kind of work being done on LGI costs 1.5 – 3 times more than the same work on the mainland. The current barge cost to bring anything to the island is about $1200.  Adding a 15-20% profit margin on top of higher O&M costs could create problems for many of the long term residents. 
      5. On the mainland, the sewer expansion plans can be paid for over time on property taxes. The costs remain with the property. We were told there are possible federal grants to defray the costs for the initial impact fees, but we would have to pay the balance outright or get personal loans. In this case, the burden would remain with the owner at time of expansion.
      6. There are 2 condominium complexes with 132 owners on LGI. There were no provisions included for bulk customers in the agreement signed by EU with CC. Though we realize Hideaway Bay Beach Club (HBBC) is considered its own DEP permitted utility, we believe provision should be in place at the beginning of the project for this potential connection.

The LGPOA is asking if Charlotte County would be willing to maintain this project so it will be kept a public utility instead of a for-profit utility? At least then, we would not have to pay the additional 15-20% profit margin on an already expensive proposition.

Are there any other measures CC would be willing to provide or perform to help with the enormous costs of this sewer expansion project other than applying for federal grants?

As taxpayers, we ask that CC do everything they can to keep the costs down as much as possible. A wastewater plan that has an environmental impact on such a wide area should not be profitized.

We ask for the courtesy of a reply to our questions and concerns prior to the EU certification hearing with the PSC on Jan 5, 2021.

Please keep the LGPOA informed of all meetings, notices, recommendations, information and final orders with regards to the wastewater system project affecting Cape Haze/Knight Island/Don Pedro/LGI.

  1. We also spoke to Anastacia Pirrello (850-488-9330) who is our attorney at the Office of Public Counsel (OPC). Here’s the information we learned:

Anastacia informed us that an islander asked for help from OPC to review Jack’s financial records. OPC’s accountants obtained and reviewed them. They determined that because it’s a collection system, not including a treatment system, his financials supported the sewer project.

Regarding the application for certificate on January 5th, she confirmed that Jack was sent a Deficiency Notice because he doesn’t have the legal descriptions complete, nor has he sent the notice to homeowners. He has until Friday to respond, but there will be no application for the certificate because the letters MUST be in the hands of homeowners 30 days before the hearing and no one has them yet.  She thought he would, however, separate (bifurcate) the rates from the application on January 5th. Everything she said confirmed my conversation with Jennifer Crawford (PSC attorney) yesterday.

Should there be a bidding process once he receives the certificate? She said yes, of course.  Rates are determined based on how much money the system costs.  Just because he spends money, doesn’t mean we have to pay for it if it’s crazy. It must be reasonable and prudent.  OPC will make sure a reliable contractor is hired and they will oversee the bidding process.  When EU’s engineer compares the vacuum system to the low pressure system as promised, she is making sure OPC will hire another (expert) engineer to double check the information.  She will let us know when she finds out, but she seemed pretty confident.

We asked her if she could contact the county commissioner to find out if this is mandatory (who is saying we have to do this – state, county, or no one?) She will email her findings.

We told her we sent an email to the county about their participation in the project. We asked if she knew if the county would do the work and run the utility. She said she didn’t know, but she would also ask the commissioner.  She will email her findings.

We asked her if she foresees any easement issues with this project? She said she would check on the rules and respond by email.

We also asked if we had one year to hook up once the line was going by our house and she confirmed that to be true. 

We asked about hook up from the point of connection (or the meter) compared to collapsing the tank, installing the grinder pump and hooking up the house? She said that she had only heard of “point of connection”.  She said maybe because of the low pressure system it would be different, but she didn’t think so.  We believe she’s going to check on this also.

She reminded us that we should all contact PSC and get on the list of emails pertaining to this docket. 

She suggested that each homeowner could send a letter or an email to our government officials listed below. 

  1. Important Reminders:

Link to Charlotte County’s Sewer Master Plan:
Charlotte County’s Sewer Master Plan

Reference docket number 20200226 in any of your correspondence.

If you’d like to be listed as “interested persons” on the Florida Public Service Commission docket regarding the application for Environmental Utilities to provide wastewater services in Charlotte County send a request to clerk@psc.state.fl.us. Reference Docket NO. 20200226-WS and include your email.  Be sure to request notification of informal meeting notices, FAW notices, all recommendations and final orders issued by the Commission.

You can also email PSC to make your comments known and shared at: contact@psc.state.fl.us

OPC suggested contacting our senators and house representative regarding your thoughts on this matter:

Senator Joe Gruters:       
(941) 378-6309 
Email the Senator                

Senator Ben Albritton – he is not our Senator, but he lives close by and has spent time on LGI.
(863) 534-0073
Email the Senator

Representative Michael Grant
(941) 613-0914
Michael.Grant@myfloridahouse.gov 

  1. Response from Charlotte County Utility Director dated 12/9/20:

CHARLOTTE COUNTY FLORIDA 
December 11, 2020 
Ms. Barbara Dwyer LGPOA PO Box 3643 Placida, FL33946 
Re: Your email dated December 9, 2020 11:59 AM 

Dear Ms. Dwyer, 

Thank you for your correspondence on behalf of Little Gasparilla Island Property Owners Association regarding your concerns about the construction, operation, maintenance, and cost of the wastewater system that is in the early planning stages with Charlotte County, Environmental Utilities, LLC (EU), and the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC). 

The 2017 Charlotte County Sewer Master Plan highlights the need for projects to connect Knight Island Utilities and Hideaway Bay Beach Club Condominiums to the Charlotte County sewer system. As you correctly stated, connecting these two systems to the county system will greatly reduce the nutrient runoff into environmentally sensitive areas and the surrounding waters. However, what these two projects did not address, are the other homes on the islands that would still be utilizing onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems. Without further action, those privately-owned systems would continue polluting our local waters. 

Last year, EU proposed to connect the two existing developments with treatment facilities and to provide sewer service to the islands, which would remove most, if not all, of the harmful systems. The County has agreed to treat the waste once EU has piped it to the mainland. EU must apply to for its certification from the PSC and obtain easements through Don Pedro Park. EU is responsible for coordinating with property owners and the two existing utilities. 

Although the County does not have the authority to dictate what specific technology EU utilizes for its collection system, EU has formally agreed to utilize methodology and technology which meets Charlotte County Utilities current design standards. 

EU is required to adhere to all regulations as outlined by the PSC for rates and fees. All costs for the sewer project are the responsibility of EU. To promote and aid in the success of EU’s project Charlotte County Utilities is currently developing plans to extend current sewer lines to the point of connection which will reduce the overall project cost. 

At this time, it would not be prudent for the County to maintain EU’s project as requested, as EU has a pending PSC Application and an agreement with the County for bulk sewer treatment. The County will continue to publish notice regarding any Board of County Commissioners meetings at which any future agreements would be adopted. Thank you again for your correspondence. 

Sincerely, 

Craig Audy Utilities Director 

Cc: Commissioner Bill Truex, Administrator Hector Flores

Update 12/17/2020:

In the LGI Sewer Project Update sent out and posted on 12/15/20 we misunderstood Jack in the 12/03/20 Special Board Meeting information under Discussion, point #4 and need to clear that up.

Once reading the LGPOA’s information Jack called to correct our statement.  He said if we were to form a utility district/not for profit he would guesstimate it could be done for less than 11,000,000, which would combine all water and wastewater.  He said we would have considerable savings after bonding and merging the companies because there would be no management operation costs, tax savings and no property taxes, etc. He also said the 11,000,000 bond could be paid for out of existing rates. If the homeowners chose this direction, a committee would need to be formed and financial advisors hired to work out the details.  He said everything else looked great.

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