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MD Commissioners: County Needs $12B To Fix Aging Sewer System

MIAMI (CBS4) - The number is so big it's hard to comprehend; between $11 billion and $12 billion. That is the estimated cost to repair and upgrade Miami Dade's water and sewer system over the next fifteen years.

"We are going to need $300 million just to kick start trying to repair these pipes," Commissioner Audrey Edmonson told CBS4's Jim DeFede.

Edmonson, who chair's the commission's infrastructure committee, was given the news last week. According to Water and Sewer Department Director John Renfrow said the county has $1 billion in immediate needs that have to be addressed in the next couple of years. There is another $3 billion in work that the county needs to address in the next four to five years. And then longer term – over the next fifteen years – the county has documented an additional $7 to $8 billion. Total over that fifteen year span nearly $12 billion.

If this is true, Edmonson said commissioners will eventually have to consider raising water rates.

"No one wants their rates raised but that's one thing we are probably going to have to do," Edmonson said. "At least I'll be supporting it."

Traditionally it has been very difficult to have any water rate increases passed. Miami Dade has one of the lowest water rates in the nation. Commissioners for decades have kept the rates artificially low as a way of ingratiating themselves with voters. But those days are coming to an end as years of neglect are beginning to show.

Anyone watching the news would know the system is already in trouble. Stories of busted water pipes and sewer pipes are common and almost always the result of rotted pipes well past their prime.

"We have parts of the system that are over 80 years, we have parts of the system over 100 years old," said Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Gimenez admits the county has ignored this problem for years -- and in fact made it worse over the last decade by repeatedly transferring money out of water and sewer department to fill budget gaps elsewhere in the county. That money could have been used to make repairs and upgrades.

Speaking with Mayor Gimenez, CBS4's Jim DeFede noted: "This was a pretty predictable crisis, though; we've seen this coming for a fairly long time. I realize you've only been mayor for a year or so."

"Yeah, it didn't all fall apart under my administration," Gimenez replied.

"But should we have seen this - you were a county commissioner [for years]," DeFede responded.

"Yeah, yeah, we should have and it needed to be looked at over a long period of time, it needed to be funded over a long period of time," Gimenez said. "At the end of the day, it is what it is. We have to find a way to fund it; we can not go without water and sewer."

Gimenez hopes to get some of the money to fix the system through federal grants as well as raising fees on developers. But homeowners are also likely to take a hit. Starting in the 2013-2014 budget, Gimenez will ask for a nine percent raise in water rates, and another 6 percent raise in each of the following five years. By 2019 water rates will have increased by 39 percent.

The ultimate decision about whether or not to water rates will have to be made by the Dade County commission. But based on the mayor's plan, the commission won't have to discuss a possible rate hike until next year. Whether or not they have the political will to make that choice remains to be seen.


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