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Proposed sewer fee irks some

February 08, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Some in Washington County fear that local residents would be flushing their money down the drain if they are forced to pay a proposed $2.50 monthly surcharge on their sewer bills.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich has proposed the fee as a way to raise money for improving sewer plants. The ultimate goal is reducing the amount of pollution that winds up in the Chesapeake Bay.

But Washington County Commissioners said this week that county sewer customers would pay the state $1.6 million per year and would get only $2 million total in return, according to early estimates.

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"I just think it's a really bad deal for Washington County," Commissioner William J. Wivell told local lawmakers last week.

Wivell said he fears that other requirements in the legislation could end up causing double-digit increases in county sewer customers' bills.

In the past few years, the county has spent more than $13 million upgrading its sewer plant.

Ehrlich's plan would require the plant to cut in half the amount of pollution left in its wastewater when it's discharged, commissioners said.

More important to the environment than upgrading sewer plants is extending sewer lines to homes that now use septic systems, Wivell said.

Hagerstown officials have similar concerns, which have prompted Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, to try to exempt city residents from paying the so-called flush tax.

Donoghue compared the fee proposal to the creation of the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program.

Residents across the state, including Washington County, must have their cars inspected every two years to make sure they aren't polluting the environment.

Local lawmakers have argued that the county should be exempt from the emissions inspection program because air pollution mainly is a problem in the metropolitan areas of the state.

Commissioners argued that counties closer to the Chesapeake Bay should be held to higher standards than Washington County, where wastewater is filtered through the Potomac River watershed before reaching the bay.

Commissioners are worried that the fee, as charged to businesses, will hurt their ability to draw new industry to Washington County.

Local lawmakers said the governor has changed his proposal to cap the fee for business customers at $150,000. Ehrlich's office confirmed the proposed cap.

Even that probably would spell the end for one business prospect, Commissioner James F. Kercheval said.

The commissioners initially thought that one business they are trying to lure to the county would have to pay nearly $1 million under the plan, he said.

"That would be a deal-breaker," Kercheval said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he has asked state officials familiar with the proposal to talk to county officials about their concerns.

Shank said he is upset that commissioners publicly criticized Ehrlich without attempting to work with the administration first.

"I find that a little bit objectionable," he said.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor is willing to work with members of the legislature to address their concerns, but remains committed to the idea.

"It's been universally praised. We hope that it passes in its current form," Fawell said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he was surprised and disturbed to learn about the possible negative effects of the legislation in Washington County.

Munson said he will pass on the concerns to Ehrlich's office.

So far, Munson said he has not felt any political pressure from Ehrlich, a fellow Republican, to vote for the fee.

"I'm going to support the governor whenever I can support the governor. But if it's not, in my view, going to help my constituents, I'm not going to support the governor," Munson said.

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