County commissioners indicate determination to allocate funding for replacement of more septic systems as they plan future budgets

Argus Foundation urges board to pursue new septic-to-sewer projects, as no funding for such work has been approved after the current fiscal year ends

Former Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

At the urging of a former county commissioner, the Sarasota County Commission has asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to ensure that the board’s first budget workshop of the year include a focus on funding for projects that would eliminate septic tank use in the county’s watersheds.

That budget workshop is set for March 29.

During the board’s Open to the Public periods on Feb. 13, former Commissioner Christine Robinson — speaking on behalf of the Argus Foundation — emphasized to the board members that, after the current fiscal year, no county money has been budgeted for new sewer lines in the Phillippi Creek Basin.

She urged the board members to prioritize such funding as they work on the county’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for the next five years. Then, she said, they would be demonstrating their commitment to improved water quality.

Commissioner Michael Moran agreed. When he was a member of the board of directors of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), he pointed out, he and his colleagues would question representatives of local governments making funding requests, asking how much money the local governments themselves had committed to projects they told SWFWMD were top priorities.

Moran and Commissioner Alan Maio talked of their desire to see the county ready with completed designs for more sewer lines, in an effort to take advantage of money the Florida Legislature is expected to award this year for water quality improvements. (See the related article in this issue.)

During the Great Recession, Maio pointed out, “The catch phrase was ‘shovel ready.’” With designs for projects “in the can, ready to be moved on,” Maio said, the likelihood is greater that the county can secure more state funding during the 2019 legislative session.

Already, Rob Lewis, director of governmental relations for the county, and Jonathan Lewis explained to the board, the county has asked for $5 million from the state this year, through the local appropriations process, to undertake more septic-to-sewer work.

The county would need to match the $5 million, Jonathan Lewis noted, so a total of $10 million would be available for a project in what staff has dubbed Area M-West of the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program.

“We’ve labeled it ‘Sarasota Bay Watershed’” for the purpose of the local bill, he added.

The design work for the M-West project is close to completion, he said.

Work yet to be done

This graphic was included with the Nov. 20, 2018 memo to the commissioners. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During her remarks, Robinson referenced two staff reports prepared for the commission in recent months, which provided details about projects the county already has approved in the Phillippi Creek Basin.

A Nov. 20, 2018 memorandum from Scott N. Schroyer, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, explained that about 68% of the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program (PCSSRP) has been completed. The entire project, Schroyer noted, was estimated to cost $214 million. The county has spent more than $119 million, he added, on the initiatives it has finished. That figure represents “the design, construction, equipment, construction phase services, and project management fees for approximately 10,077 central sewer service connections,” Schroyer wrote.

“That really … puts us pre-eminent in the state of Florida,” Jonathan Lewis told the commissioners, in terms of undertaking such work without a state mandate for it.

The memo also noted that, as of late November, design work was at the 90% mark on projects in the PCSSRP areas designated I-J1.

Robinson told the board members on Feb. 13 that, with the design work almost done for areas M-West and I-JI, they just need to appropriate the funds to eliminate the 2,370 septic tanks in those segments of the Phillippi Creek Basin.

Another 2,895 septic tanks in the county also need to be replaced, she continued, but work has not even begun on the design phases for those initiatives.

“This is a project that is working and is making a difference,” Chair Charles Hines said of the PCSSRP.

A chart reflects progress on the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program as of late November 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, having reviewed a Jan. 18 memo to the commission — prepared by Charles Henry, director of health and human services for the county — Robinson said the Argus Foundation agrees that the commission should act on three of that memo’s recommendations:

  • “Continue efforts to identify and map all septic systems to enhance future decision-making processes and assist with the prioritization of [septic-to-sewer] systems.”
  • Develop “a comprehensive wastewater management plan that considers prioritization of areas currently on septic for conversion to public sanitary sewer systems when the area has high densities of septic systems per acre (4 or more), or when a majority of homes are located within 900 feet of surface waters.”
  • Investigate all cost-effective stormwater management best practices in the effort to reduce nutrient discharges into surface waters in the county. (Experts on red tide have pointed out that the nutrients feed red tide blooms, exacerbating the blooms’ longevity.) “This approach,” Henry wrote, “will be conducted with priority for ‘impaired waters’ in a watershed management approach.”

Robinson did not comment on a fourth recommendation in Henry’s memo, which called for the development of “recommendations for potential amendments to our local septic system ordinance. This could include countywide pump-out and inspection requirements and the use of [nitrogen-reducing] systems near bays and estuaries, as well as inland [nutrient-impaired] surface waters.”

Nitrogen, especially, has been documented as a prime source of food for the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.

Robinson is executive director of the Argus Foundation. She served as a county commissioner from 2010 until 2016, when term limits made it necessary for her to step down from the board.

Planning action

This section of the Sarasota County Capital Improvement Program proposed for the 2019 fiscal year — which began Oct. 1, 2018 — listed septic tank replacement initiatives, among other projects. The chart was presented to the commission in May 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the board discussion, Commissioner Nancy Detert talked of her efforts — when she served first in the Florida House and then in the Florida Senate — to secure state funding for the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program. (Jonathan Lewis acknowledged that state money was part of the $119-million figure Schroyer had cited in the November 2018 memo.)

“We should be replacing septic tanks as quickly as possible,” Commissioner Maio said. The areas with top priority, he continued, should be those on platted lots with proximity to water bodies and existing county sewer lines — situations that would make the projects less expensive.

He lives in a community with large lots, he pointed out. “We’ll probably be the lastones to get central sewer,” because of the distance of the homes from county infrastructure.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked Rob Lewis, the governmental relations director, about the county’s septic-to-sewer bill request. Lewis told him that the deadline for submitting local bills was the previous week. “All of our requests were in.”

State Rep. Will Robinson. Image from the Florida House website

State Rep. William C. “Will” Robinson of Bradenton, Lewis continued, has submitted to the bill-drafting division Sarasota County requests for septic-to-sewer systems not just in the Phillippi Creek Basin but also in the Lemon Bay and Dona Bay watersheds in South County. “Rep. Robinson has been very receptive [to the county’s requests].”

Other bills, reflecting goals of Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislators themselves, Lewis said, are “continuing to take shape.”

Lewis also pointed out that Hines, the commission’s chair, was “one of a handful” of county commissioners from across the state appointed to the new Florida Association of Counties’ Water Quality Improvement Committee, “which will be taking a state policy leadership role.”

feel there’s a very unique opportunity happening in Tallahassee right now,” Commissioner Moran said. Water quality “is getting the attention it deserves. … There’s going to be money flowing on this, big time.” Therefore, he added, he and his fellow commissioners should prioritize county water quality projects, so they would have the best chance of winning state funds.

Rob Lewis responded that, thanks to the efforts of Commissioner Ziegler, he was able to meet the previous week with staff of the governor’s legislative office. “I identified our septic-to-sewer [project] as one of our highest, if not the highest, priorities.”

Florida Senate President Bill Galvano. Image from the Florida Senate website

Ziegler pointed out that the commissioners also are in a unique position for the next two years because state Senate President Bill Galvano hails from Bradenton, and members of the county’s legislative delegation have high profiles. (Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota is chair of the Florida Republican Party; Ziegler is vice chair.)

“Let’s do whatever we can to reach for the sky the next two years,” Ziegler added.

“What can we do to help you?” Ziegler then asked Rob Lewis.

Working with the legislative lobbyist the commission hired, Lewis replied that he would “continue to reinforce for our delegation” the county’s local bill requests. The commissioners can assist with that, he added. After the bills have been drafted, they can help him and the lobbyist ensure that the bills will have hearings before the applicable subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee.

Additionally, Lewis said, the more details he, the commissioners and the lobbyist could provide to state leaders about how the county would spend money on septic-to-sewer projects — “as comprehensive as we can make [the plans]” — “the more likely we will be successful [in winning funding].”