By Rich Pollack
The future of Highland Beach’s unique spending cap, which requires voter approval before commissioners can spend more than $350,000 on a single item, is playing a key role in determining how and when the town rolls out a $1 million sewer pipe restoration project.
The cap may also figure into whether the town can pay for a portion of the project with some of the $1.65 million it is receiving from the American Rescue Plan.
Highland Beach recently commissioned a study that showed the 15,000 feet of sewer pipes running through town are aging and in two specific instances are fractured with small amounts of sewage leaking into the ground.
To remedy the situation the town plans to fix the broken pipes within a month or two and then use relatively new technology to line the existing pipes — some 50 years old or older — adding decades to their life span.
If the town wanted to pay for the project all at once, using money from its utilities fund — which is supported by water and sewage treatment fees — it would require getting a green light from voters through a referendum.
Another option would be to break the project into three parts, each costing under $350,000, and spread it out over three years.
Town Manager Marshall Labadie said the town could even save money by breaking the project up because it would use a qualified firm already under contract for underground services under $350,000 a year.
During a meeting in March, town commissioners agreed to postpone for several months a decision on whether to take the issue to voters or break the project into three parts. This would allow them to first receive an expected opinion on the future of the cap from a charter review board that will meet soon.
Mayor Doug Hillman and Labadie pointed out that many of the recommendations from that board would need to be approved by referendum, so tacking on the sewer lining question to the ballot would not require additional expense.
While some commissioners pointed to a legal opinion from Town Attorney Glen Torcivia that breaking the project into three parts and spending less than $350,000 in any given year would be permissible, others said they were concerned about “the optics” of that.
The challenge, according to Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman, is that some residents could see breaking the project into pieces as an attempt to bypass the requirements of the spending cap.
“I don’t want to subject this commission to the wrath of people who think we’re skirting the charter and the code,” she said during the same March commission meeting.
Throughout the discussion, commissioners referenced a $45 million referendum two years ago that failed overwhelmingly, which they believe is still on the minds of residents.
“From what I see, this town is allergic to a referendum,” Commissioner Evalyn David said.
For her part, Gossett-Seidman said bringing the issue to the public could help restore their faith in the local government, which suffered after the 2019 referendum.
“I’m just saying there are issues of trust,” she said.
Commissioners agreed that while there is no immediate need to line the sewer pipes, it’s important to get the capital project done within a three-year period and wondered if that could be a problem if the voters disapprove.
“What if the referendum fails?” David asked.
Although most of the commissioners said they had faith in the voters to approve a necessary project, they asked Torcivia to determine if they could still break the project into pieces under the cap.
Labadie said the town is also researching whether a portion of the $1.65 million coming from the relief package could be used for the project and if so, would the town still need voter approval to spend more than $350,000 since the federal money might not be considered “town dollars.”
In the end, commissioners agreed that making emergency repairs and tying up loose ends before making a decision would be the best course to take.
In other business, town commissioners last month welcomed new Vice Mayor Natasha Moore to the dais during a swearing-in ceremony that also saw the return of Gossett-Seidman. Moore and Gossett-Seidman, both residents of the Bel Lido Isle community, ran unopposed.
Moore, a real estate broker, fills the seat vacated by Greg Babij, who chose not to run for re-election because of business and family time commitments.