Collier forgives more than $326K in debt for struggling Everglades City
More than two months after Hurricane Irma walloped the Everglades City area, residents say they still have much to be thankful for.
Collier County leaders have agreed to forgive more than $326,000 Everglades City owes the county as the tiny city continues to struggle financially in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and attempts to fix ongoing problems with an aging sewage plant.
Collier and the city signed an interlocal agreement in 2016 to relocate some of the city's utility lines as part of work to replace the Chokoloskee Bridge. The county would move the lines and the city would reimburse Collier for the cost, according to the agreement.
The county completed the project in October 2018 and billed the city $326,178 in January. Despite sending the city notices in April, July and September, the invoice remained unpaid.
In a letter to the county manager in late September, following a meeting with the county the week before, Mayor Howie Grimm Jr. wrote that the city didn’t have the funds or resources to pay the invoice. He asked county commissioners to consider forgiving the charges.
Collier commissioners obliged last week, voting unanimously Tuesday to forgive the debt. Commissioner Donna Fiala said the small city is still reeling from Hurricane Irma, which hit the town on the edge of the Everglades hard.
“I think we ought to foot the bill somehow and take care of them,” she said.
Commissioners Bill McDaniel and Penny Taylor agreed. Taylor said the city is still digging muck out of the town and doesn’t have enough money to repair streetlights.
The embattled former mayor Sammy Hamilton Jr. — who resigned in 2017 after troubles surfaced over the way he handled problems with the city's sewer treatment plant and died in August — signed the agreement with the county without the knowledge of fellow city councilors, Taylor said.
“They are struggling to become solvent,” she said Tuesday. “They are raising the rates of the water and sewer down there, because they need to.”
Although some commissioners tried to move on the item swiftly near the end of a lengthy meeting Tuesday, others voiced concerns.
Commissioner Andy Solis, who ultimately voted in favor of forgiving the debt, said the item “merits a discussion.” He said there should be “some sharing of responsibilities.”
“It’s a municipality,” Solis said. “I feel for them. But it’s a municipality. They’ve had their issues running their municipality, I understand that. I mean, I think there has to be some involvement from the municipality.”
Commissioner Burt Saunders, although also in support of forgiving the debt, said he would be “very careful” going forward.
“I understand the economic problems there, but as Andy said they are a city and I’m willing to go with this one, but I’m going to be unlikely to go with any additional ones,” Saunders said.
Southwest Florida communities reflect on their needs after Hurricane Irma.
To the struggling city, Tuesday’s decision is a blessing.
The city, Grimm said in a phone interview last week, is still recovering from Irma and waiting on some federal reimbursements for clean-up costs.
“We’re still struggling with what happened in the past…,” he said. “We just don’t have that much money.”
The county forgiving the debt will release some money to help deal with the city’s faulty sewer plant, Grimm said.
“That would’ve completely crippled us,” he said, referring to the county’s invoice.
Repairs need to be made to the plant and the city is pursuing a state grant that would help pay for a new facility, but Hurricane Dorian slowed the grant process, he said. The grant, Grimm said, will become open at the end of the month.
For now, the city is making repairs to keep the plant, which has been operated by a contractor for about a year, going. The sewer plant, Grimm said, should have been replaced eight or 10 years ago.
“We’re patching stuff up ...,” he said. “We’re just chipping away at it.”
The Florida Rural Water Association, Grimm said, is helping the city write short- and long-term plans that will show how much money is needed to build the new sewer plant and add other areas to the sewer system.
Grimm confirmed that the rest of the council didn’t know about Hamilton signing the agreement with the county. The council was caught off guard when it came to light, he said.
“The council didn’t know anything,” Grimm said.
To help the cash-strapped municipality generate more revenue, the city is raising its water and sewer rates for the first time in decades. The sewer rate, Grimm said, doubled, and the new rates have already gone into effect.
Everglades City has struggled with a failing wastewater treatment plant for years.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection sued Everglades City in 2015 after inspectors caught the city's wastewater treatment plant pumping sewage into nearby mangroves.
The city also had failed to complete dozens of needed temporary repairs to the plant, as well as move forward with a complete reconstruction of it under deadlines outlined in the settlement of a prior lawsuit with the DEP.
State and city officials signed a consent final judgment in July 2018 that outlines a number of actions the city has to take over the coming years.
Among other things, the city agreed to have a licensed operator for the facilities, complete an asset management plan for the water and wastewater plants, and finish construction of a new wastewater treatment facility within five years of the judgment regardless of whether public or State Revolving Fund assistance is received.
The State Revolving Fund consists of programs that provide low-income loans to local governments to plan, design and build, or upgrade, wastewater projects and drinking water systems. Grant-like funding is also available for qualified small, disadvantaged communities, according to the DEP’s website.
Per the final judgment, the city also has to provide written quarterly progress reports to the DEP.
Instead of paying the penalties outlined in a prior order, the city agrees for the next decade to:
- regularly update its asset management plan;
- submit an operation and maintenance performance report at least annually;
- and correct all facility violations and/or deficiencies within 45 days of being notified by the DEP or immediately if state officials determine the violations present an “imminent hazard” to the public.
“We’re trying to do everything they’re asking us to do,” Grimm said.