City Council President Tommy Hazouri, a Democrat, has filed a bill to spend $100 million to improve the property of homeowners lacking a connection to the sewer system and the mayor is kicking in a few bucks, too.
Ominously, Hazouri calls it “a drop in the bucket” compared to what is needed.
His bill would amend the current year’s budget to authorize borrowing that amount of money for the purpose of phasing out septic tanks. It would require approval by two-thirds of the council.
There are two myths associated with this issue, both kept alive by the local media.
One is that the work was “promised” at the time the city and county governments were consolidated. The other is that nothing has been done since then.
For decades, the JEA and previously the city water and sewer department have been extending sewer lines throughout the city and allowing people with septic tanks to tie into the new lines, for a fee. Afterward, they paid a monthly charge for sewer service.
Septic tanks work well as long as they are properly designed and maintained. When placed in sandy soil they can present problems. But the property owner is responsible for maintaining them properly.
State officials say septic systems are a safe and effective means of wastewater disposal for 30 percent of Florida’s population. “Properly designed, constructed, and maintained systems protect Florida’s ground water which provides 90 percent of Florida’s drinking water,” the Florida government web site says.
Replacing septic tanks in the area of Duval County outside the pre-1968 city limits of Jacksonville constantly is referred to by the local media as a “promise” of consolidation.
News4Jax recently said, “The effort to remove septic tanks is meant to make good on a broken promise made in 1968 during consolidation. The city agreed to improve drainage and sewer systems in older neighborhoods as it expanded the city boundaries to go all the way out to the beaches.”
The TV station did not cite any source to substantiate its allegation of a broken promise.
It would be irrelevant even if true. Promises made by politicians do not constitute a legal claim on a city’s fiscal resources ad infinitum.
This nonsense is asserted by politicians and not even questioned by the media.
What the supporters of consolidation said was that the savings from cutting waste and duplication would make it easier to finance the extension of water and sewer lines. But no one ever said it would be free to the homeowners, to our knowledge.
Water and sewer lines have been extended. There are now 3,760 miles of sewer pipe underneath the city. (Drainage is another expensive problem altogether.)
The cost of tying into the city’s sewerage system by running new line from the house to the street is substantial and many homeowners have declined to tie in when they had the opportunity because of the cost.
Politicians today would like to shift that cost from the property owner – who benefits by having the value of his property increased — to the taxpayer who has paid for his own improvements.
Hazouri’s bill would cover the cost of removing and disposing of old septic tanks after the homeowner ties into the city sewer lines.
This is necessary to preserve the environment, he said.
Before consolidation, there were 30,000 septic tanks in Duval County.
City officials say there are 65,000 septic tanks in the city now, and Hazouri said half of them are failing today. Officials also say some of the septic tanks pre-date consolidation, which means they are well beyond the normal 25-year useful lifespan of septic tanks.
Why has the city allowed the number of septic tanks to increase if they are a major threat to the environment, and what has it done to make certain property owners take care of them?
In 2016, the city began a phase-out program that changed the process substantially.
This program, jointly funded by the city of Jacksonville and JEA, involves the full installation of water and sewer pipes, proper abandonment of existing septic system(s), connection to the new water and sewer systems and payment of all associated permits and fees at no cost to the property owner, according to the JEA.
This means property owners do not have to pay to hook up to the city sewer lines or pay to have their septic tanks removed. In effect, having purchased homes at lower costs because they did not have sewer service, they are being given an improvement to their property worth more than $20,000.
Politicians are justifying this massive giveaway by charging it off to “protecting the environment” because some septic tanks that are not maintained properly can leak and the leakage might find its way to local waterways.
Soon after Hazouri announced his bill, Mayor Lenny Curry jumped on the bandwagon by saying he and the JEA would come up with $26.8 million to continue the 2016 program in three neighborhoods approved for septic tank removal in 2016.
Two were completed but one near Lem Turner Road and Edgewood Avenue remains unfinished because the city underestimated the cost and ran out of money. Curry’s plan will address that gap.
“We have to start somewhere,” Curry said. “We can’t keep writing this issue off as a multi-generational and multi-billion dollar problem that is too big to address. We made promises to do this and the time has come for government to start keeping its promises to its people, however big or however expensive. Stay tuned for an announcement in the coming weeks where in collaboration with my colleagues on City Council, we will further address this decade old issue once and for all.”
Curry’s comments are more in tune with reality than those made by some other politicians. He said “we made promises,” indicating the current office-holders rather than those of 50 years ago, and buttressed that by saying the issue was 10 years old, not 50 or more. He has been in office nearly six of those 10 years.
In fact, proponents of consolidation considered the issue in depth and were very clear about the difficulty of solving it.
In the 1965 Blueprint for Improvement that came out of the Local Government Study Commission and laid the groundwork for consolidation, the problem of sewerage was described as “colossal.”
“The problem outside the corporate limits of municipalities can only be described as colossal. Indeed, it is of such proportions that it endangers the public health of the entire county,” the blueprint said.
“There are in excess of 300,000 people outside the city limits and only a small portion of these are serviced by fully adequate sewer systems. Fortunately, FHA and VA subdivision financing requirements have in later years called for proper provisions for sewage. The State Board of Health approves plans of new sewer plant installations. However, after completion of construction there is little or no provision for control. Most subdivision developments impose a sewer service charge of $10.50 per quarter; however, despite these service charges upkeep and proper operation have often been lacking. The county has no franchise or direct regulatory authority over sewer plants. Septic tanks, regardless of where they are, are always prone to problems; population density, weather factors, soil, non-digestible detergents and solvents, etc., all threaten the tranquility of septic tank operations. None of the municipalities extend sewer service outside their corporate limits, although Jacksonville has the authority to do so and can charge non-city residents a user fee; however, the City has avoided extending service even though requested to do so on occasion.”
Jacksonville did not stop growing. It has nearly double the population it had at the time of consolidation and Curry said it might cost $2 billion to provide sewer service throughout the city.
In 1955, it could have been done for $100 million, according to a study at that time.
Buck-passing politicians of today also overlook the fact that the newly consolidated city improved public health and the health of the St. Johns River significantly by cutting off sewer outfalls into the river and diverting the waste to new regional treatment plants, at a huge expense.
The idea that nothing has been done about septic tanks also is a myth.
For example, the $2.25 billion Better Jacksonville Plan during the Delaney administration included $75 million to phase out septic tanks in six areas: Pernecia, Murray Hill, Lake Forest, Scott Mill Hill, Glynlea, and Oakwood Villas. These areas have all been remediated, and the program ended in 2010. The Water and Sewer Expansion Authority, originally created to continue septic tank phase out projects following the completion of the BJP program, was dissolved on June 30, 2011.
Every city in America has public works projects that need to be done. It always is a matter of how much taxpayers can do at one time. Jacksonville residents have paid billions of dollars to address water, sewer and drainage problems over the past half-century.
Politicians are patting themselves on the back for their fairness and foresight in addressing these problems, and saying they will accelerate the process..
But how does free sewer hookup and septic tank removal constitute fairness to the thousands of property owners who paid for theirs? And if it is such a pressing problem, why haven’t they done more about it during all the years they have been in office?
Also, is everybody going to get a free connection in the future, including those in million-dollar homes? Or will it be another welfare program?
Also, are the taxpayers going to have to pony up for a half-billion-dollar football stadium at the same time they are hit with $2 billion for sewers, or is somebody going to establish priorities?
A lot of questions remain.
Meanwhile, blaming dead people who were in office 50 years ago won’t wash. It would be refreshing if politicians would just say, “We dropped the ball, but we finally have decided to do something because some of us want to get re-elected — and we’re going to redistribute some wealth while we’re at it.”