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Village proposes $14 million budget
Infrastructure tax funds few Key Largo projects
County budget to increase by 1 percent
County awards contract for Harris park cleanup
Marr appointed to planning commission
Reconciling biology and faith
Normalcy still evasive a year after Georges
Business closings blamed on rental ban
Residents face cesspit replacement soon
Bit of squid makes Marge your friend
Thomson Keys Media Group plans hurricane relief
Torches, Ramrod opt for association with VOLK
Project Hope team ready to move on again

Village proposes $14 million budget

By Steve Gibbs
Free Press Staff Writer

ISLAMORADA — Village staff will submit a proposed $14 million budget to the council for approval Thursday.

The 1999-2000 budget proposes a 26.8 percent increase in operating expenditures and a property tax rate of 2.53 mills, up from the current 2.13.

The primary reason the spending increase is so high, according to Acting Village Manager Greg Tindle, is because $2.7 million in grant money has been factored in.

By taking away the anticipated grant money, the increase is only 1.4 percent over last year’s budget, Tindle said.

Additionally, the millage rate could be reduced at Thursday’s 5:15 p.m. meeting to 2.3 mills, Tindle said.

As of Monday, the proposed $13,966,900 budget included a $6.427 million General Fund, a $7.11 million Special Revenue Fund and a $424,000 Debt Service Fund.

Of that total revenue, $3.516 million is anticipated fund balances — $762,213 from the General Fund and $2.75 million from the Special Revenue Fund — to be brought forward from the current fiscal year.

The General Fund could drop by $1.178 million if solid waste revenue is culled out into a separate fund, Tindle said Monday.

Approximately $2.714 million of General Fund revenue is expected to be generated by the 2.53 millage rate. If the Village Council reduces the millage to 2.3 as expected at tomorrow’s final yearly budget meeting, the figures will go down.

The Special Revenue Fund is made up mostly of state revenue sharing and grant money, which the village has not yet received.

Tindle indicated that $1.9 million is forthcoming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for wastewater improvements as part of a much larger grant awarded to Monroe County with portions indicated for municipalities.

The smallest portion of the revenue, $424,000, falls under Debt Service. Tindle says $390,000 is for the interest payment on Plantation Yacht Harbor, and comes mostly from the General Fund, with just $90,000 coming from infrastructure.

Proposed General Fund expenditures total $6.427 million and include $1.2 million for the fire and rescue department, $800,000 for general government, $400,000 for the village attorney and $375,905 for the village manager.

The largest single project planned for the upcoming fiscal year is road resurfacing, an area some council members have openly criticized the county for neglecting.

Budgeted in what Tindle tagged the Transportation Fund, but which appears in the Budget Summary under Special Revenue Fund, is $366,000 per year to be added to a current fund balance of $990,000. Over five years that gives the village $2.82 million for road resurfacing.

Council members and staff have expressed their excitement over a five-year plan to resurface every road in the village. The council is reserving the option of making that a seven-year plan, if necessary.

Along with improving village roads, the village will spend $2.3 million on Parks and Recreation, of which just $453,505 will come from the General Fund with the balance from the Special Revenue Fund.

Approximately $1.5 million is earmarked for Phase 1 of the yacht harbor, which includes baseball fields, an upgrade to the beach lagoon and other capital improvements.

The Monroe County School Board has been working with the village for several months on an inter-local agreement so that athletic facilities might be shared. The school district will pay part of the costs of construction, maintenance or both.

Of the $355,000 to be spent on Parks and Recreation for such items as purchasing land at Sea Oats Beach, $167,000 should come from grants, Tindle said.

The village also wants to retire the $10 million loan debt incurred when it purchased Plantation Yacht Harbor.

The village wants to reduce that debt to a manageable $4 million by selling off $3 million worth of Transfer Development Rights — the yacht harbor has about 64 TDRs — and by raising another $3 million by putting aside $750,000 of the $1.194 million in infrastructure tax each year for four years.

The plan, according to Tindle, “confirms that the purchase of PYH will occur without raising property taxes for that purpose.”
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  Infrastructure tax funds few Key Largo projects

By Harlen Brown
Free Press Staff Writer

KEY LARGO — Monroe County has collected $100.3 million in one-cent infrastructure sales tax revenue since 1990, according to a county report released last week.

Just 5 percent of the money has been spent on major capital projects in Key Largo, home to about 15 percent of the county’s population.

The Monroe County commissioners received a nine-year infrastructure spending history, prepared by Budget Director John Carter, during its recent budget hearing in Key Largo.

The report has Key Largo’s pro-incorporation leaders saying, “We told you so.”

Citizens for Island Government has claimed that the bulk of infrastructure tax revenue spending has taken place in other areas of the Keys.

The group’s feasibility study claims that about $2 million in infrastructure tax is generated in Key Largo annually and will be returned to the area through incorporation. Once in the hands of a village council, that money can be spent on parks, buildings and other facilities, the incorporators say.

County Administrator Jim Roberts, however, pointed out that much of the infrastructure tax spending has been on capital projects that have a countywide benefit, such as government buildings and the new jail.

“What I would have you do is look at your starting point,” Robert said. “It is not the $100 million. It’s $100 million minus the jail debt, which we have been ordered to pay by a federal judge [$33,706,838 since 1992].

“I would also think that people would look at how much of the money was spent outside Key Largo that impacts Key Largo,” he said.

Roberts said that, “like it or not,” the main area of the constitutional offices, the courts, the sheriff and other county facilities is located in the Lower Keys.

“We have also spent a lot of money at Plantation Key, where you have sheriff’s offices, a courthouse, state attorney, public defender and other social services that are used by Key Largo,” Roberts said.

Charlie Brooks, chairman of CIG, the pro-incorporation group, believes the spending analysis is a definite plus for the incorporation movement.

“When you stop and think about all the time that leaders in our community have asked the county for help and were turned down, I think it’s time they showed where the money goes, and it shows we are not getting our fair share,” Brooks said.

The infrastructure tax spending study, for example, shows that Key Largo received a total of $137,898 in 1997 for major capital projects (Key Largo Park and Friendship Park), $106,627 in 1998 (Key Largo Park) and $2.68 million in 1999 (Key Largo Park and Fire Department).

Brooks said that kind of fluctuation in spending is troublesome.

“The feasibility study done for the upcoming vote on incorporating Key Largo on Nov. 2 shows that the village would receive $1.9 million in infrastructure funds its first year and that would increase to $2 million-plus in succeeding years,” Brooks said.

“We want to have that kind of money coming in steady for Key Largo instead of a few dollars here and there, and that’s what incorporation will mean,” he said.

Brooks acknowledged that some spending has a countywide benefit.

“Mr Roberts is right about the county facilities that are used by Key Largo residents,” Brooks said. “But if we incorporate, they will still be providing those services because Key Largo will be paying taxes to the county’s general fund and to the sheriff’s department.”

Lou Caputo, chairman of Citizens Against Incorporation, agreed that county spending has not always been proportional in Key Largo, but he believes the county is changing its ways.

“Our philosophy has always been that we don’t mind putting something in to the pot, but when it’s our turn to get some of the money, we get some of the money,” Caputo said. “I believe the county is saying, ‘It’s [Key Largo’s] time.’ We have built what we need in Key West, now we are going to be spending money up the Keys.”

Caputo says the new County Commission is more responsive to Key Largo and that greater infrastructure spending here can be achieved without incorporation.

“I think we can get what’s our’s without starting all over again,” Caputo said. “So why not work with what we have now and try to make them better?

“In four or five years, if I’m disgruntled, then I can say yes [to incorporation]. If I vote now, I can’t take that vote back. I can’t change. I’ve got to struggle with a whole new group, a whole new system, a whole new learning process, and I don’t think a lot of people are ready for that right now. They are not ready to just give up on the county," Caputo said.

“I’ve seen dramatic improvements [in county government], but we need more,” he said.

One of the new county commissioners was shocked to learn of the infrastructure tax spending history in Key Largo.

“Holy sh—!” Commissioner Nora Williams said, before taking into consideration some of the countywide benefit of that spending.

“Frankly, some of that is explicable because, like any government, they are going to spend most of the money on building where most of the people are located — and that’s going to be Key West.

“But,” she added, “it wouldn’t matter if it was located on the moon, 5 percent for Key Largo is not acceptable.”

Commissioner Mary Kay Reich was not as surprised by the numbers as Williams.

“That’s the reason we have so many groups talking about incorporation, because they are donor communities. Always have been,” Reich said. “All that will stop once incorporation goes through.”
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  County budget to increase by 1 percent

By Harlen Brown
Free Press Staff Writer

KEY LARGO — The Monroe County Commission took just over an hour to put its stamp of approval on the second budget hearing for fiscal year 1999-2000.

Property owners in the Village of Islands and Key Largo will most likely pay less for county services next year.

The meeting, held Wednesday evening at the Key Largo Library, drew a small crowd and few comments.

A final hearing is planned for Wednesday, Sept. 22, in Key West before the $242.2 million budget — up less than 1 percent over this year’s $241.4 million budget — is adopted.

Unless changes to the budget are approved during that hearing, property owners in Key Largo can expect a tax cut of $16.25 per $100,000 of assessed property value, while Ocean Reef homeowners will see their property taxes drop $31.94 for the same value.

Meanwhile, Tavernier and the Lower and Middle Keys should expect a $14.07 increase per $100,000 of assessed property value.

As for the cities, Layton and Key Colony Beach will pay $43.17 more per $100,000 of assessed property value for their county services, while Key West and Islamorada should see a $2.84 drop.

Layton and Key Colony Beach’s increase is due to a 35 percent hike in Fire and Ambulance District 1’s millage rate. The district will lose almost $800,000 in revenues from Islamorada which will provide its own fire and rescue services next year.

Also on Wednesday, a request to amend the Future Land Use Map to allow two new golf courses at Ocean Reef passed unanimously without comment.

County Administrator Jim Roberts submitted a copy of capital improvement expenditures for the past 10 years to the commission for its approval. It passed unanimously.

Commissioner Nora Williams asked Roberts what was being done to purchase land for a new health department building to replace the Tavernier office which has been closed as a fire hazard.

Roberts said the state has been looking for property but, finding none suitable, was considering remodeling the present quarters.

Commissioner Mary Kay Reich, called the building “a rat hole.”

“Putting money into it is the most ridiculous thing they could do,” she said.

The commission directed Roberts to set up a meeting between state health department officials and the board for an update.

Two public hearings followed on residential solid waste collection and commercial waste collection rates, both of which passed unanimously.

In other action, the commission approved a resolution to draft a budget for a canal cleanup project.
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  County awards contract for Harris park cleanup

By Steve Gibbs
Free Press Staff Writer

TAVERNIER — Monroe County has awarded a contract for a Harry Harris Park clean-up project, nearly one year after Hurricane Georges pounded the Keys and two weeks after the park’s beach was closed due to high levels of bacteria.

LaRocco Enterprises, of Key Largo, has been awarded a near-$40,000 contract to clean six blocked culverts, repair riprap, reapply filter fabric and replace boulders around the park’s swimming area.

The post-hurricane cleanup project is expected to be completed within 100 days of commencement.

Two weeks ago the Monroe County Health Department closed down the popular swimming area after discovering unacceptably high fecal coliform bacteria counts in the lagoon — over 50 percent higher than the acceptable state level for marine recreation waters.

The State of Florida has set 800 colonies of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters of water as the outside safe limit. Harris Park waters tested higher than 1,200 on Aug. 25.

While periodic testing goes on, the area will be closed for 30 days, and will re-open if the pollution count falls within acceptable limits, according to Jack Teague, environmental administrator for the Department of Health.

But some residents were concerned about the lagoon and water quality at the park as early as July 7.

That’s when Harris Park resident Jennifer Preston called County Commissioner Nora Williams and asked her to look into a culvert blockage problem.

Williams contacted the county engineering department, and on July 22, was provided with a report prepared by inspector Desiree Peacock.

The report showed that, of the six culverts, two were 100 percent blocked and four are 70-to-80 percent blocked.

Preston was told the clean-up job would have to go out for public bid and might not be completed until December. Preston thought that was too long and would not let up.

She continued to push for a clean up at Harris Park, emailing commissioners and calling county and state health officials. On Sept. 6, Williams E-mailed Preston with the following:

“Believe it or not, even with all the pushing, we’re just now seeing on our calendar the request to put out for bid the repairs — that’s what happens after you get something fast-tracked!

“I have no doubt that we’ll see action soon,” Williams continued. “I also think it is remarkable that, even before the tests were showing the damage to the water quality, those in the area knew there was a problem that needed addressing.

“By continuing to push on the issue and staying on top of it — by refusing to let time go by without response — we’re in better shape than we could have been. ...”

Still, Preston wonders why corrective action has taken so long.

“I started trying to get help on this matter and get it fixed in May. I have made approximately 40 phone calls and gotten nowhere. Why is it that nobody listened? Or maybe they did ... they just didn’t care with it coming from a dumb little country girl that is not a homeowner and has only been in the Keys for two years.”

In an email to Williams, Preston wrote: “I hope you had a great Labor Day somewhere else, because we have family down and could not even go to the park we live a block away from to cook out and go swimming and snorkeling. It was an embarrassment.”

Dave Koppel, county engineer, defended the county’s post-hurricane work efforts, but admitted his department has been playing catch up since Georges.

“We save the county a lot of money, about $1 million a year,” Koppel said. “But the bottom line is we’re spread thin. What projects are you going to abandon to do this?

“We just can’t keep up. I have 100 different projects going on right now,” he said.
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  Marr appointed to planning commission

By Harlen Brown
Free Press Staff Writer

KEY LARGO — Scott Marr, general manager of the Marina Del Mar and former member of the Tourist Development Council, has been appointed to the Monroe County Planning Commission by County Commissioner George Neugent.

The nomination was approved by the County Commission at its Sept. 9 meeting in Marathon.

When asked about his nomination, which came just a month after Marr stepped down from the TDC, Neugent said, “ I didn’t want him to get comfortable in the bullpen.”

Neugent said he has known Marr for about five years and that they are on the same page on many issues that Marr will be facing on the planning commission.

Last year, Marr led an unsuccessful effort to establish a community redevelopment agency in Key Largo.

“I feel he took a lot of heat and personal attacks when he was aligned with the CRA project in the Key Largo area,” Neugent said. “That was very disappointing to me, knowing full well that Scott is extremely conservative on his feelings of growth and development in the Keys.

“Based on that, I thought that Scott would be an exceptional board member, and that he would surprise a lot of his critics, who feel he is pro-growth and -development, when truly Scott is probably more on the side of environmentalists as he is on development,” he said.

“I’m sure a lot of his future decisions will reflect that.”

Marr will replace Jimmy Altman who was appointed by former Commissioner Jack London.

“Jimmy has served admirably in that position,” Neugent said.

Marr, a past president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce and Key Largo Economic Development Council, is excited by the opportunity.

“I’m looking forward to working on the planning commission," Marr said. “I think it’s going to be a challange and a lot of fun. I’ve had a chance to talk to Tim McGarry [growth management director] and a lot of the commissioners about it.

“Over the next couple of years, all the new Land Development Regulations are going to be written and I’m excited to be a part of that,” Marr said.

Marr says he will be an advocate for “sustainable development.”

And if given a choice between seeing the Keys’ natural resources deterioate or having additional growth of any kind, Marr says his choice is clear: “I’ve proven by my track record that I would go against the growth in favor of the resources.”
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  Reconciling biology and faith

By Steve Gibbs
Free Press Staff Writer

ISLAMORADA - Anthony Hammon used to shake his fist at the sky and challenge God.

The pastor of Island Community Church admits that in those days he was “a full-blown atheist.”

Majoring in science at the University of Miami made it easier for him not to believe in God. Having simply survived his childhood gave him enough ammunition to ignore religion and all its trappings.

Those were the days when partying and surfing safaris were more important than almost everything else.

That is until he met Colleen Cullen, his future wife, and Bruce Porter, his future boss.

But there was a long period of time where he was just a lost kid with no direction, a kid whose earliest memory was of a strange man beating him with the buckle end of a belt, and a mom who turned out to be a bag lady.

A lifelong Islamorada resident, Tony, as he is known, lived the wild and carefree lifestyle typical of many young Keys’ men.

“We’d play ball and get drunk, fish and get drunk, surf and get drunk. That was my journey away from God,” Hammon says today.

He tells of high school days when he and his friends built a large three-story beach hut in a sea grape tree on Green Turtle Beach, just south of Cheeca Lodge.

“We had collected a variety of booze and one night had a big party,” Hammon says, his blue eyes flashing with the recollection of mischief.

“Like a bunch of drunken Indians we built a bonfire too close to the hut and set the hut on fire,” he says. “It burned to the ground.”

As he and his friends ran away, Hammon’s leg got caught on the Cheeca Lodge fence, which made him angry. In a drunken stupor, the group walked into the Matecumbe Methodist Church - the church Hammon had been raised in - and he began to mock God.

“I must have scared my friends - ‘Tony’s gone off the deep end’ - because they waited outside,” he says. “‘If you’re there, strike me with lightning,’ I yelled at God, shaking my fist.

“Afterward two or three of us sat under a palm tree next to what is now Jeff Pratt’s Texaco Station. Then it was a Citgo Station, I believe,” he says.

Hammon says that Deputy Lee Pinder shone a light in his drunken face, recognized him and took him home.

“I was filthy dirty, covered in my own vomit, and still drunk as I could be when my brother woke me and told me I could either paint the house or he would tell my dad,” he said. “I painted the house.”

The following Sunday, Bob Ripley, past of the Matecumbe Methodist Church, spoke of the incident in his sermon. Hammon says he was too embarrassed to go back.


But he had begun dating a good Catholic girl, Colleen Cullen, of Key Largo. Hammon refers to her as his anchor. He says she led him back towards God, although he admits he fought it every step of the way.

“My driving philosophy then was, ‘What are the consequences?’ and ‘Is it something I want to do?’” Hammon says.

He recalls a few incidents that were of little interest when they happened, but are remembered as life lessons now.

“I was a student at the University of Miami and the Vietnam War was in full swing,” he says.

Hammon was with a friend, 6-foot-4-inch Pete Dingler, who had returned from fighting in Vietnam. They watched as about 20 “hippie-types” prepared to run down the American flag and burn it in protest of the war.

“I can’t let ‘em do that,” his friend said. Hammon reminded him that he was outnumbered, but his friend walked over to stand between the crowd and the flag. Hammon joined his friend, and the two stood with their backs to the flagpole.

“We were about to get pounded when a security guard came out and broke it up,” Hammon says. “I questioned my actions later, and I could only reason that loyalty motivated me.”

The other incident involved his dad’s death. Actually his grandparents, who raised him like their son, had adopted Hammon. He still refers to his grandfather as “dad.”

His dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had little time to live. Hammon and the family decided not to tell him, afraid he would just give up.

Hammon says he spent lots of time driving his dad around in the car just so they could talk, and he recalls rebuilding a wooden boat with his dad, just to be outdoors and get him to exercise his lungs.

“His last two weeks were very tough on us. It was a turning point in my life. We had converted my bedroom into his hospital room,” he says.

He remembers his father squeezing his hand and asking him to not let him die. “When he finally died, I didn’t shed a tear. I saw it as a biological death,” Hammon said. “It wasn’t long before Dale Crawshaw and Bruce Porter [Hammon’s future boss] came knocking at my door.

“I angrily asked them to leave me alone. Then I went outside under a fig tree and shook my fist at God and cursed and cried,” Hammon says, smiling.

“I caught myself and said, ‘What was that?’ Why was I yelling at God if I didn’t believe in God?” Hammon says.

Another event in Hammon’s life, which later turned out to be important, was the arrival of Linda Lang.

Lang, a strong 17-year-old Christian girl, came to live with Hammon and his bride, Colleen, after Lang lost her mother.

Hammon was a marine biology teacher at Coral Shores High School at the time. “After a long time, I finally went to church with her because the kids in my class, Linda included, challenged me. Bruce Porter’s sermon was to be on science and scripture,” he says.

He was impressed that Porter, the founding pastor of the church, dealt with faith issues in an honest intellectual way.

“I challenge you to find an error in scriptures,” Porter told the congregation that morning. He was really talking to Hammon. Porter then upped the ante, saying that if Hammon could find an error he would quit his ministry.

“I went to him after the service and said, ‘You’re on. You’ll be through in two weeks.’ I started digging and doing research,” Hammon says.

“I started going to Mass with Colleen on Saturday nights and I’d sneak off with Linda to Island Community Church on Sundays,” he says. “I’d watch the people. They were not snake-handling bumpkins like I had pictured them. They were intelligent respectable people.”

After a year of church-going and research had passed, Hammon approached Porter.

“OK, I give up,” he told the pastor. He says they hugged and shed a few tears. He then asked Porter, “Now will you leave me alone?”

Of course, Porter didn’t. Instead, a short time later he hired Hammon to be the principal at Island Christian School, a job Hammon took even though he was reluctant to leave Coral Shores.

Now Tony Hammon is pastor of the church, having taken over Porter’s old job. There was a time when he thought of leaving the community, but decided to stay, mainly because he believes his experience is important to share with folks in the Keys.

“I made the decision to stay in this community so people who had known me could see the difference Christ made in my life,” he says. “I had a horrid past, but I just try to be honest. I don’t have anything to hide.”

Hammon has recently found his biological father after not knowing his paternal heritage for most of his life.

Once he learned who his father was he finally mustered up his courage to call him. They made contact then nothing more until the following Christmas.

“There was a package delivered Christmas morning,” he says. “Something that surprised me. It was a box full of photographs of strange people that I didn’t know.

“Turns out to be my biological relatives. They looked like a bunch of Oklahoma cowboys,” he says, laughing.

“Not long after that I got a call from a lady who tells me she’s my biological sister,” he says. “We talked for a while, and she said, ‘We’re related in Christ.’ I told her I had a question to ask.

“She said the answer was ‘yes’. I said, ‘You haven’t even heard the question yet.’ She said, ‘Yes, Daddy’s accepted Christ as his savior,’” Hammon says. He smiles.

“She knew my question,” he said.

Hammon has written a book about his life, called “Bone of My Bones: A Journey Towards Reconciliation.” It is due to be printed next year.
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  Normalcy still evasive a year after Georges

By Erik Slavin

MARATHON - Before going on a horseback riding vacation in the Colorado mountains last summer, Bill and Dorothy McQueen had spent most of their free time getting ready for lobster season. Bill had his eye on a new motor for the boat. It could wait until they got back, he thought.

Three days after they returned, they evacuated to Jacksonville along with their son Joey, 11. Hurricane Georges continued its course. When it left the Keys, the McQueens began the 8-hour drive back. Dorothy was the first to call Marathon.

"When we were halfway home, we already knew we had water," she said. "But you don't realize what kind of mess it is until you see it.

"All you can do is dump your whole house out - you don't own anything anymore."

Georges deluged the McQueen residence with 32 inches off water. The waterbed became an underwater bed. Joey had piled all of his favorite stuff on top of his bed to keep it away from the floodwater - it didn't work. Lobster season, the boat, the vacation memories and everything else in life became an afterthought. All the McQueens could think of now was rebuilding.

"You don't have time to cry or think," Dorothy said. "You realize mold is growing, and the quicker you get things out the more you can save. You just go to work."

For five weeks, the McQueens worked on their home while sleeping in friends' apartments. They were not getting anywhere. They needed to be closer to the house. Dorothy and Bill borrowed a four-person pop-up camper and set it up in their backyard. They slept in it for five months.

"It was mostly okay, except for on the cold days," said Bill.

That fall, a typical day began at 5:30 a.m. Dorothy dropped Joey off at school, then dropped Bill off at work, then went to work at Keys Hairmasters, the beauty salon she opened just before Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992. They all got home by 5 p.m., then worked on the house until 11 p.m.

They stripped electrical wiring, ripped the warped paneling off their walls, removed the loose, cracked floor tiling - all the "grunt work," Dorothy said. They remained in the camper for Christmas, still waiting for their claims to be processed.

The family was not in the mood for Christmas at first, but their spirits brightened as the holiday approached, they said.

"Christmas was cool," Bill said. "We had the biggest tree we've ever had, about 8 1/2 feet, outside in the yard for the whole neighborhood to see."

"Mostly we were trying to make things good for Joey," Dorothy added.

The McQueens moved back into their house in January. They had no furniture yet, but they did not care. They had walls.

Today, a faint dirt line marking the highest floodwater is visible on the backdoor. It is one of the few marks of Georges a visitor would notice at the McQueen residence. In less than a year, the house shed its folksy 1960s style for sleek 1990s functionality. New furniture and appliances adorn every room in the house. It's nice to have, but the McQueens hardly recommend hurricane survival as a good way to remodel. They have replaced most of their material possessions; but a year later, the one thing they still have not regained is a sense of normalcy.

"It's still not," Bill said. "We're still fixing things to this day. It's not normal yet. Maybe next year."

Dorothy agreed, then began listing what remained to be done. After a minute, they reconsidered.

"We're getting close," they said. p>Go to the top

  Business closings blamed on rental ban

By Kip Blevin

BIG PINE KEY - Businesses here are being shut down in the wake of Monroe County's stepped-up enforcement on the ban on short-term vacation rentals.

And tourists, who might have spent time in the local area, are finding themselves squeezed out of the few motels and campgrounds and forced to go to pricier Key West.

"Since the vacation rental ordinance took effect in January, we lost 36 businesses - 12 closed down completely," said Carol Fisher, executive director of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce.

And the people who are being hurt the most are the employees - waiters, waitresses, maids, people who work at Winn-Dixie - who have no place to stay, she said.

Chamber President Alexis Colicchio echoed that sentiment.

"The impact to the Lower Keys is devastating," she said. "I know of four businesses closing already in our area and the impact from the loss of vacation rentals is just starting."

For Fisher, the decision by the county commission to kill short-term rentals was uninformed and precipitous.

In hindsight, Fisher sees several mistakes that were made. The sheriff's office should have gone after the renters instead of the landlords with heavy fines, she said.

The other mistake was in calling for a referendum that ended up being voted on countywide.

"Don't give me the statement: the people have spoken," Fisher said. "Big Piners were 60 percent in favor of leaving short-term vacation rentals alone."

She said the ban went into effect because areas of the Keys where no such rentals existed voted in favor of it.

Dan Hengst, owner of KD's Big Pine Steak and Seafood House, has never seen business so slow. When two restaurants closed, he put on extra staff in anticipation of increased business. "It never happened," he said.

"We were getting to the point where we didn't have an off-season," he said. "I haven't seen it this slow in eight or nine years. In years past, we used to close during September. We may be getting back to that."

Fisher is even concerned about the future of the chamber.

"We only had 260 members and to lose 36 of them, that's a lot in a community our size," she said.

Colicchio's letter to the local community describing the economic impacts local businesses are sustaining brought responses from 94 people. The Lower Keys chamber comprises District II of the Tourist Development Council.

The recent attempt by the commission to carve a portion of each district's generic advertising brought a howl of protest from a district that only has five percent of the market share. Colicchio described a bleak future for the upper end of the Lower Keys.

"Without vacation rentals and no potential to ever be able to build [because of a county moratorium], that advertising money [sought by the county] becomes critical for our area to survive.

"If we don't stop the commission, you will end up with an area that once thrived on tourism bankrupt and abandoned."

At an earlier TDC meeting, Commissioner Shirley Freeman said that the plight of District II is a trade-off for ensuring a better community.

Fisher, who's passing out buttons proudly proclaiming, "We're a Shirley Freeman Trade-off," is still at a loss as to why some people are so anti-tourism.

"I don't know why anyone would move to an area with a tourist-driven economy, buy a house and not want the tourists," she said.

She said her only hope would be for the commission to permit some modification of the ordinance.

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  Residents face cesspit replacement soon

By Kip Blevin

MARATHON - Monroe County residents who have illegal cesspits or defective septic tanks will be required to replace them by next July, county officials say.

These people are identified as living in "cold spot" areas, isolated pockets of the county. To replace their illegal onsite sewage systems could cost them up to $18,000.

There are cold spots and there are the "hot spots" - densely populated areas with the poorest sewage treatment, such as exists in Marathon and Key Largo, and which will be eligible for a central sewage system or a smaller package system.

County officials, including Commissioner Nora Williams, have been quick to point out that people in hot spots could have five to 10 years to hook up to a central system and hundreds of dollars in government grant money to help them do it.

On the other hand, those who will be identified in a cold-spot area at the county commission's October meeting probably will be expected to go it alone and replace their sewage systems at costs ranging from $11,500 to the Housing Authority's estimate of $18,000.

On Jan. 1, the Department of Health will begin sending out notices to those cold-spot residents telling them that they will be required to replace them by July, Williams said.

She said hot spot residents should feel blessed, since they will be eligible for funding, lower costs and more time to get it done. They will pay for central sewage treatment through a one-time hookup fee, along with monthly service payments.

Hot spots, cold spots and now "warm spots." George Garrett, the county's top environmental officer, revealed that category.

Garrett described warm spots as being on the bottom of the hot spot list. "Warm spots may become cold spots," he said, explaining that those are areas in which, for lack of financing or community will, residents may never be able to hook up with a package sewage plant, such as are found at some apartment complexes and trailer parks.

CH2M Hill, an Oregon engineering firm hired by the county to analyze the different sewage treatment systems in the Keys, is compiling the hot spot/cold spot designations. The firm was hired two years ago to help create a master sewage treatment plan for the unincorporated areas of Monroe County.

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  Bit of squid makes Marge your friend

By Erik Slavin

MARATHON - She is not fluffy, she does not catch Frisbees, but feed her five pounds of squid and she'll be your best friend.

She is Marge, a 90-year-old loggerhead turtle who lost an arm to a boat propeller. Marge is one of 40 adult and 15 baby turtles currently residing at The Turtle Hospital in Marathon.

"One of the worst problems now are amputated flippers due to fishing lines," said Sue Schaf, the hospital's only full-time employee. "So many people here throw their fishing line away in the ocean. It doesn't just disintegrate."

Tina Brown and Richard Moretti, owner of Hidden Harbor Motel, first opened the hospital in 1986. In 1992, Moretti bought Fanny's, the adult club next to his motel, and converted it into a full-service veterinary facility. Schaf and volunteers from around the Keys can now take X-rays, conduct internal examinations and perform surgery with equipment donated to the hospital by Moretti and others.

"So little is known about sea turtle medicine," Moretti said. "It's really exciting to be writing the book on sea turtle repair."

The hospital is also involved with the University of Florida in studying fibropapilloma, a disease which covers sea turtles with debilitating, often deadly tumors. Once limited to green turtles only, fibropapilloma now affects 30 to 50 percent of all sea turtles around the world.

Most of the turtles live in Hidden Harbor's old swimming pool, along with a few tarpon. Those needing special attention live in their own spaces surrounding the pool. April, Rebel and Bubblebutt are the only three "lifers", permanent residents at the hospital.

Schaf takes pride in naming the turtles, who often display a surprising amount of personality. A recent addition named Curious George likes to crawl up out of the water and watch whenever humans are around. Lack of personality is one of the common misconceptions people have about sea turtles, Schaf said.

"Another is that they are not slow - they're very rambunctious. People forget that they're wild animals," Schaf said.

While the hospital regularly welcomes schools and educational groups, it is closed to the public. The time it takes to lead a tour group is time that could have been used to care for a turtle, Schaf said.

The hospital is happy to take any injured sea turtles from people who find them on the shore, but it asks anyone who sees one in the water to notify the Florida Marine Patrol.

Most turtles are released after one year into the Content Keys or the ocean, depending on the type of turtle. The release makes all the effort worthwhile, Moretti said.

"When you take an animal back out to the wild for future generations, the feeling incomparable. I'm hooked," Moretti said.

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  Thomson Keys Media Group plans hurricane relief

By Bill Barry

MONROE COUNTY - The Free Press Community Newspaper Network and the Thomson Florida Keys Media Group have established a hurricane-relief fund to bring aid to our Bahamian neighbors in New Plymouth, on Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos of the Bahama Islands.

Hurricane Floyd hit the Southeast Bahamas, an area known as the Family Islands, a week last Monday with sustained winds of 145 mph. The 600-mile-wide Category 4 hurricane did extensive property damage in Eleuthera, including Spanish Wells and Harbour Island, Abaco and East End Grand Bahama. Wind gusts of 180 mph were reported.

Many local "Conch" families and Keys residents have their island roots in the Abaco and Eleuthera Islands, including Green Turtle Cay.

The Free Press is sending a reporter to Green Turtle Cay and will publish a report and photographs in our next issue.

The Thomson Florida Keys Newspaper Group will also publish a special relief publication. It will carry good will and greeting messages from Florida Keys families and businesses, and be delivered to New Plymouth.

All contributions raised from the messages in the Free Press relief publication will be donated to the Bahamas Hurricane Relief Fund being coordinated by Dona Merritt, who led the Florida Keys Hurricane Andrew relief effort. This effort also is being coordinated with the consulate general of the Bahamas in Miami, Franklyn O. Rolle.

Individuals and businesses desiring to send a good-will or greeting message in the special Free Press relief publication may do so by sending a check to: Thomson Hurricane Relief Fund, P.O. Box 1800, Key West 33041.

Alternatively, you may drop off your contribution at our offices in Islamorada, Marathon or Ocean Reef. Please print your complete name and message in the envelope with your check.

Help is needed now. We intend to raise as much money as possible and publish and deliver the special Free Press relief publication with your contributions within the next 20 days.

The Free Press and the Thomson Florida Keys Group will match the first $1,000 in contributions received.

We all remember Hurricane Georges changing our lives one year ago this week, and now we have the chance to help hurricane victims in the Bahamas. If you can help, please do it now. The citizens of the Bahamas need your help.

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  Torches, Ramrod opt for association with VOLK

By Kip Blevin

LOWER KEYS - Residents of some of the Lower Keys would prefer to have no tie that binds with Big Pine Key, choosing instead to group together with Summerland and Cudjoe to form a local government. Those 1,200 voters on Ramrod, Big Pine and the three Torch keys were recently mailed ballots from the Monroe County Elections Office.

The purpose of the poll was to settle a matter of boundaries between two separate Lower Keys incorporation movements, and to determine whether or not those islands would choose to be incorporated at all. The Village of the Lower Keys (VOLK), which represents Summerland and Cudjoe keys, and the Paradise Islands of Monroe County Inc., which represents Big Pine Key, are both wooing Ramrod and Little, Middle and Big Torch keys for inclusion in their incorporation efforts.

The balloting data showed that 55 percent prefer to be linked to the Lower Keys effort and only 19 percent want to go with Big Pine Key. A total of 432 ballots were returned, representing 34 percent of eligible voters.

Overall, the concept incorporation won the endorsement - 74 percent in favor with 26 percent against.

"My concerns early in this process were that I had not heard from the people of the Torches and Ramrod," said State Rep. Ken Sorensen. He mailed an "open letter" to his constituents, in which he declared the balloting to be quite clear.

"Consensus in the Keys is difficult and it is not a perfect world," Sorensen said. "But with more than 34 percent expressing their strong position, this is about as clear as it can get."

Sorensen called the return "an excellent cross section of the precincts." These incorporation issues could now go before the voters in a November 2000 referendum. Key Largo and Marathon will vote on incorporation in November of this year.

Some from the VOLK group expressed fear that linking up with Big Pine might be complicated by the heavy influence of the island's biggest landowner, the federal government.

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  Project Hope team ready to move on again

By Shane Liddick

BIG PINE KEY - Phones rang incessantly, the television was locked on the Weather Channel and Maite Roca talked hurriedly to officials in Tallahassee Sept. 13 as Hurricane Floyd slowly approached the Florida Coast. Roca and six members of her Project Hope hurricane recovery team were on alert and ready to travel anywhere in Florida to perform initial damage assessments.

By Wednesday it was clear Florida was spared and Project Hope (Helping Our People in Emergencies) returned to business as usual. Because Hope's federal grant expires at the end of October, business-as-usual now entails tying up loose ends and finishing resumes.

Most of the project's counselors are locals who were brought on board shortly after Georges hit, Roca explained. Several of them will begin looking for other jobs upon the termination of the project.

"The employees I hired were people who lived here," Roca said. "They were victims going through the process themselves. Because of that they knew the Keys well and had a good repoir with the people."

Maria Sanchez Feltman was the Spanish speaking "floater" of the team. She switched groups frequently to assist in neighborhoods with high Latino populations. As a result she became friends with all the team members.

"It was an excellent team," she said. "It was put together in a hurry, and we all had different personalities, backgrounds and professions, but we came together really well."

Feltman's seven years of counseling experience in Key West was typical of most of the team members. Roca tracked down Paulette Prentiss of Big Pine by means of an application she had on file with the Department of Juvenile Justice. Duncan McCormack was working at a children's shelter whose grant was about to expire when Roca found him.

Roca, 29, was working with the Florida Department of Children and Families in Miami when Georges hit. She was sent to the Keys to perform an initial survey and was given two weeks to write a request for a grant from FEMA for disaster relief.

Florida has no mental health disaster staff, she said. In the event of a disaster, the federal government steps in and distributes money, usually to local mental health agencies. After Georges, for the first time, federal money was all funnelled through the Dept. of Children and Families.

"That made things work smoothly," Roca said. "All the money was moving through one channel, one mental health organization, instead of five or six."

Roca's first request was granted and she was given the task of directing Hope's aims in the Keys. That first request, with two extensions, has turned into a year's work. While the post has been a great challenge and step-up in her career it has come at a price. She accepted the job knowing that her position with Children and Families would not be available at the completion of the Hope project. One of the resumes that she will be editing is her own.

"It was worth it," she said. "Because I was given only guidelines concerning the operation of the project, with nothing fixed, my team had to be creative, flexible and independent. We had to develop new ideas and ways of doing things. It was a fulfilling challenge."

Describing Hope as the "emotional component to disaster relief," Roca said her team of 16 performed a lot of crisis counseling. Because of the nature of crisis counseling and disaster relief, the team spent most of it's time in the field, doing work door-to-door. The small amount of time spent in the office was used for planning and debriefing.

"It was very important for us to get out and let the community know that their behaviors were normal reactions to an abnormal situation," she said. It was during Hurricane Andrew that Roca gained most of her disaster relief experience. A supervisor for a mobile crisis team she was on-scene the day after the destruction. She talked about the tent city that was erected to house over 10,000 people and the unbelievable extent of the damage.

"It was incredible - brick and concrete buildings were just gone, nothing left," she said. "If Georges was a category four storm, we would not be here now, even a year later." Because of the extensive damage inflicted by Andrew, the federal grant for that project lasted three years. Roca cites that saga as a great learning experience for disaster relief authorities.

"We created what was disaster relief in order to respond to that situation," she said.

The "community health teams" that responded to emotional disaster relief in Andrew grew into the Project Hope operation during Georges relief. The trend was to get out of the offices, into the field.

With that new logic in mind a day after the storm, Roca found herself with a federal grant, a hurricane besieged community, great emotional needs and no employees. In desperation she said, she scrambled to organize a team that was not only qualified but capable of covering the geographically challenging Key West to Marathon perimeter.

"I used every resource I had and threw together what ended up being the most cooperative group I've ever worked with," she said.

With that search came McCormack, Prentiss, and Feltman. In addition, Roca found Victoria Hare, Janelle Roberts and Gideon Davis. Within days they were canvassing the lower keys, knocking on doors - when doors were available.

"We did a lot of knocking on doors," Roca said. "Though I remember when one of the counselors asked me in dismay, 'What do you do when there is no door to knock on?'"

Now that all doors have been replaced, Feltman said remaining Hope members are going back and making sure that homeowners have found help through organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Paradise Interfaith Network that Hope has worked closely with over the past year.

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