Frustrated by lack of financing to help residents replace septic tanks with sewer hookups, county commissioners last week sketched the vital program themselves and told the mayor and her team to flesh it out.
A commission resolution in May 2022 had directed the mayor to establish a trust fund to help property owners pay to connect to sewerage outside their doors. Dead silence followed. Tired of waiting, commissioners themselves created the package, tweaked it in a sunshine meeting and passed it unanimously.
That’s a major step to solve a seemingly insoluble puzzle for residents and improve the health of the bay and environment. Imagine, in this day and age in a global metropolis, 110,000 residences still don’t link to sewer service. Unthinkable but true.
Part of the slowdown is the magnitude of the need. Another part is the estimated $3.3 billion cost that is rising daily to run sewer lines everywhere.
But a key factor is that the issue is hidden – like water use, problems hide underground and only surface when disasters like major fish kills several years ago are linked to septic tank leakage. It’s an invisible danger.
“This is one of those items that’s kind of stinky, no pun intended,” Commission Chairman Oliver Gilbert III told last week’s meeting. “People don’t like to talk about it, but it’s going to be impactful on how we develop a more resilient Miami-Dade County.”
Commissioners crafted a three-prong attack: septic-to-sewer no-interest or low-interest loans of up to $15,000 apiece not restricted by income; another pool of loans up to $15,000 to those who make at most 140% of area median income; and grants of up to $15,000 to those whose incomes are below 150% of the federal poverty level.
Commissioners also told the mayor that the $5 million they OK’d last year for a septic-to-sewer program that the mayor has yet to detail must be boosted by another $10 million, and they told her to find the money somewhere. Commissioners agreed that even $15 million won’t be enough, but it’s another big stride.
Even when Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and her team put meat on the skeleton of the plan that commissioners passed – they ordered her to report progress quarterly until it’s finally in action – they acknowledged that they’re only chipping away regularly at a mammoth issue.
“I think this is like item number 28 dealing with septic-to-sewer legislatively,” said Raquel Regalado, one of four commissioners who as a group drafted the legislation. “How do you eat an elephant? A bite at a time.”
According to a 2020 county report, 9,000 septic tanks here were vulnerable to failure or already failing. Another 13,500 could fail by 2040, releasing waste into groundwaters, Biscayne Bay or, in some cases, back into water supplies of the homes that they serve, the report said.
Get this: no septic tanks then were inspected or registered with the county. Legislation passed last year for the first time required that new or replacement septic tanks be registered with the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management. And legislation up for a Nov. 14 hearing would require sellers of properties with septic tanks to disclose the type of system.
But as Mr. Gilbert hammered home last week, even the new program’s three separate funding streams to help homeowners connect have gaps.
“When you make it a loan,” he said, “if you told me … I had to borrow $15,000 and I didn’t need a septic tank right away, I would not borrow the money. I’m in that category of people not rich at all, but I wouldn’t qualify for the grant. That’s the category of our residents that get left out of a lot, homeowners who aren’t rich who struggle day to day, and we don’t have a mechanism to actually help them.”
The program works when someone has to replace a failing septic tank or needs a permit, commissioners agreed, but not when they have a choice about whether to shift to the far more reliable and environmentally friendly sewer system.
When sewerage is finally laid to your front door, Mr. Gilbert said, “we say you’re supposed to connect. But that only comes into play when you need a permit for something…. If you don’t need a permit for something, we don’t go out and fine you for not connecting.”
In other words, there’s no enforcement, and costly new sewer lines don’t serve all the people who could hook up. “This county’s structure on how they attack that is going to have to change,” Mr. Gilbert noted correctly. Without a mechanism to enforce compliance, laws are just words on paper, not a living policy.
Last week’s legislation doesn’t cover commercial buildings, but Ms. Regalado pointed out that owners of commercial properties have very strong economic reasons to hook up when sewers become available, because a connection doubles or triples property value, making about 100 additional uses legal on the site.
The biggest cost issue is not going to be the individual-by-individual connections to sewer lines but getting the sewerage flowing outside their doors in the first place. The county must pay to provide it.
This program addresses the ability of the county to get individuals to pay their costs to connect once that sewerage arrives, and commission discussion made clear that it’s not a simple problem.
So gaps and loopholes and more steps remain, and nobody knows how to finance the county’s side of this: how do we pay to run the sewer lines everywhere, and how soon can we do it? We can’t get anyone to hook up to a sewer system that’s not nearby. That’s a multi-billion-dollar gap.
Meanwhile, let’s applaud a commission that is relentlessly attacking a stinky issue that nobody wants to talk about but that is pivotal to ensure the future of this global community.