Miami-Dade lawmakers quiz officials on costly sewer overhaul

Thu May 16, 2013 5:21pm EDT

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May 16 (Reuters) - Local lawmakers in Florida's Miami-Dade County on Thursday queried details of a planned $12.6 billion reconstruction of the county's run-down water and sewer system in a bid to counter swelling opposition to fee hikes tied to the 15-year project.

The same county legislators in April gave preliminary approval for issuance of $4.25 billion of water revenue bonds for repairs and improvements of 7,500 miles of sewer lines and more than 1,000 pumping stations.

But on Thursday they held a special meeting to quiz county administrators on proposed rate rises and possible alternatives to the hikes. The unusual session was called by Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, who on Tuesday cut short consideration by a commission committee of the bond program.

Commissioners, including some responding to complaints from constituents over raising fees unchanged for three years, and Miami-Dade voters needed more information about the sewer project and its financing, Sosa said.

Home to the City of Miami and Florida's most populous county with 2.6 million residents, Miami-Dade has some of the lowest water rates in America but is negotiating with the U.S. government over fixing its mishap-prone system.

The federal government late last year sued Miami-Dade, alleging it was violating the Clean Water Act. Environmental activists this week won the right from a judge to join the federal lawsuit.

In 2010, a sewer pipe burst spilling an estimated 20 million gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay adjacent to Miami's high-rise towers and other waterways.

"Hardly a month goes by that we don't have something burst," County Commissioner Esteban Bovo said on Thursday.

Miami-Dade officials told the county legislators on Thursday that residents paying an average $125 a quarter for sewer and water service would likely see rates rise by a third over the first five years of the renovations.

County commissioners urged Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to consider seeking private investors to fund water treatment plants and a rise in local hotel taxes mostly paid by tourists as ways to reduce the rate increases.

Miami-Dade has until June 24 to sign off on a consent decree with the federal government committing the county to the 15-year program.

Several of the county commissioners, who are scheduled to take up the proposed consent decree on Tuesday, said during the meeting on Thursday that the water and sewer system had to be fixed both for public health and to ensure economic growth.

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