By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
State regulators did what they could to prevent the Fort Lauderdale sewer mess that experts predicted years before a major pipeline sprang leaks in December–and kept on spewing waste for almost three months.
But Fort Lauderdale failed to protect itself. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, the city is fighting a costly rearguard action to restore the sewage system, rescue marine life and preserve clean water.
While there is no villain in this saga, the state blames a budgeting technique that siphoned funds away from sewer projects to other services at times when the money was desperately needed for sewer projects. And the most zealous practitioner of this now-abandoned technique was former City Manager Lee Feldman, who was fired in October 2018.
“I blame a lot of people,” said Stan Eichelbaum, spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale Association for Good Government. “I blame Feldman for the diversion of the money and for ignoring the public safety issues.”
Last month, the state threatened the city with a $2.1 million penalty, payable immediately, if Feldman’s budget strategy makes a comeback.
On June 30 Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that increased penalties for violating environmental laws; at the same time, his $1 billion in budget cuts included about $60 million for water and wastewater projects.
During the Gov. Rick Scott era, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) settled a complaint against Fort Lauderdale for unchecked sewage discharges. The Sept. 29, 2017 deal the state and city struck, called a consent order, scheduled sewer fixes and promised hefty fines for violations.
Exploding sewer pipes
The question is: After city leaders signed that agreement, why didn’t they move fast enough to keep the sewer pipes from exploding? Residents who demanded action long before the state weighed in said they were ignored.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating that appeals to the city were stifled, yet authorities like the state and consultants recognized the issues and need for better practices,” Eichelbaum said.
The worst sewer meltdown in Florida history, which started in early December and didn’t end until late February,might have brought a record $2.1 million DEP fine.
Instead of paying the fine into a statewide environmental fund, the city opted for a closely monitored, $3.1 million local restoration project. Beyond that, the city has announced a five-year plan to invest more than $600 million in water, sewer and stormwater systems.
Fort Lauderdale residents were outraged, but couldn’t have been surprised, when 230 million gallons of wastewater poured into their streets and waterways, damaging property, killing fish and polluting the air.
For years the media had amplified public outcries about smelly discharges after isolated pipe breaks. Also, a citizen-led task force has been meeting and reviewing sewer projects for three years and counting.
The DEP has turned the Fort Lauderdale sewer fiasco and penalty into a cautionary tale for other cities. In a statement to Florida Bulldog, DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said he hopes the Fort Lauderdale situation will be “a wake-up call to cities across Florida.”
‘Enough blame to go around’
Still, Marilyn Mammano, who chaired the city’s infrastructure task force its first three years, cautioned against rushing to rebuke any one individual or group. Mammano teaches urban planning at Florida Atlantic University.
“Nobody thinks about infrastructure until something breaks. Then everybody’s looking around to blame somebody,” she said. “There’s enough blame to go around for everybody.”
Mammano said she was “not unhappy that the state stepped in the way they did. That was the shot that got everybody to take notice. That sort of galvanized everybody.”
State regulators take the position that city administrators knew what they had to do to save the decrepit sewer system, but didn’t follow through quickly enough to avert a crisis. The regulators focused on the city’s financial procedures and didn’t like what they saw.
Fort Lauderdale paid Orlando-based Reiss Engineering about $1.2 million to consult on water, sewer and stormwater needs and management. Reiss’s 837-page report, released in April 2017, put the city on notice that parts of the water-and-sewer system were “on the brink of failure” and said renovations would cost $1.8 billion over 20 years.
Penalty tied to any ROI comeback
But not all urgently needed projects could be tackled urgently. For many years city administrators used a budgeting method called return on investment (ROI). Instead of tapping a dedicated utilities budget to fund sewer projects, they shifted the money to a general budget to support police and fire departments and other services.
Between 2012 and 2017, Feldman used ROI to move about $90.4 million earmarked for water and sewer projects to the general budget, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported in August 2017.
Before the current city administration phased out ROI budgeting and ended it completely this year, the total had climbed to an estimated $120 million. So at the moment the money was required for some crucial sewer repairs, it wasn’t immediately available.
ROI is legal but the DEP rejected it, at least the way it was used in Fort Lauderdale.
A June 12 addition to the 2017 consent order demands that the city “continue to spend utility revenue only on its wastewater system.” The revised deal gives the city a choice between the $3.1 million environmental project and the $2.1 million fine–provided there’s no ROI. Otherwise, the local option disappears and “the entire penalty shall immediately become due.”
A ‘simple’ message
DEP Secretary Valenstein said in his statement, “Our message is simple: Engaging in the practice of diverting utility funds and sending that money elsewhere is no way to mitigate, monitor or address the issue of aging infrastructure.”
Dean Trantalis, a commissioner for several years before he was elected mayor in March 2018, railed against what he called Feldman’s overuse of ROI. Trantalis’s push for infrastructure funding reform was a cornerstone of his successful mayoral campaign.
Still, the city didn’t stop using ROI cold turkey. That wasn’t doable, Trantalis said.
The first year he was mayor, “Feldman refused to participate with the commission in finding ways to cut the budget in order to reduce the ROI,” Trantalis said. He said cuts totaling $20 million were required.
After that first year, the new city manager, Chris Lagerbloom, warned that such drastic cuts would have “a serious detrimental effect on the rest of the budget,” Trantalis said. Lagerbloom recommended phasing out ROI over three years; in the end, it was done in two.
In a recent interview with Florida Bulldog, Feldman defended ROI, noted that he didn’t invent the concept, and denied that he alone made budget decisions.
“It was something that we discussed in advisory boards and it was looked at by the city auditor,” Feldman said. “All of them deemed it to be appropriate and a best practice.”
A widely accepted strategy
Indeed, ROI is a widely accepted budgeting strategy–within limits that the DEP suggests Fort Lauderdale exceeded.
After Trantalis became mayor he and the commission fired Feldman, largely because of his perceived failure to prioritize infrastructure repairs. He left at the end of 2018 and was replaced by his assistant Lagerbloom.
In November Feldman started a $255,000-a-year job as the city manager of Gainesville. Though he’s gone from Fort Lauderdale, the sewage disaster refreshed memories. Some residents haven’t forgotten or forgiven him for his budgeting choices.
“It was a judgment call and his judgment was wrong,” civic activist Eichelbaum said. “We kept saying, ‘You’re playing Russian roulette with public safety.’”
Feldman responded, “Mr. Eichelbaum can make whatever assertions he wants. It’s easy to blame the guy who’s not there.”
Seiler: We embraced consent order
The same might be said about Fort Lauderdale attorney Jack Seiler. Feldman’s seven years as city manager overlapped most of Seiler’s 2009-2018 tenure as mayor.
Seiler said his administration took the 2017 consent order as their marching orders, “expedited the infrastructure repair process and put a lot of money and resources towards that goal.”
“We created the infrastructure task force for this. We started the go-fast campaign, we got a $200 million bond issue, and we did all of that responding to the state bringing this to our attention,” he said.
Yet Seiler said he does take some responsibility for the sewer disaster that occurred after he left office. “Everybody who has served on the city commission for the past two decades, including the mayors, should take responsibility for this,” he said.
Mammano, the task force chair, said she believes the city is finally getting somewhere on infrastructure. “Once the state stepped in, it was like turning a battleship around. It takes a little time to get a battleship turned around,” she said. “We’re picking up speed now.”
Fear of a second wave
Residents said sewer lines are still breaking, but the leaks are less serious and frequent because the coronavirus closed hotels and other high-usage businesses. They fear a second wave of water and sewer problems when the city reopens completely.
“Our concerns are very much drinking water and water contamination,” Eichelbaum said.
The city has stopped major sewage leaks and is building a 54-inch main sewer line to back up the one that suffered catastrophic damage, Trantalis said.
The mayor said two bond issues totaling $400 million will pay for essential upgrades to the water-and-sewer system. He’s looking for federal money and any other resources he can find to fund waterway cleanup and revive marine life.
“Within a year we hope to have a sewage system that can take us into the next 50 years,” Trantalis said.
The bond money will be available at relatively low interest because of a recent development. On June 25 Standard & Poor’s upgraded to AAA the rating of Fort Lauderdale’s special obligation refunding bonds. S&P’s cited the city’s strong economy, management, liquidity and “budgetary flexibility.”