'Flush tax' would apply to sewer and septic users

March 04, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

Whether you're on public sewer or have a septic tank, Maryland's legislative leaders want you to open your wallet to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich has proposed a $30-a-year fee on public sewer customers.

Money from the so-called "flush tax" would pay for upgrades to the state's largest sewage treatment plants, allowing them to dump cleaner waste water into the rivers and streams that flow into the bay.

But House and Senate leaders who are reviewing the plan said they want to lower the fee and charge homeowners with septic systems as well.


In addition to improving sewer plants, the state would replace failing septic systems and plant more cover crops to reduce farm runoff, said House Environmental Matters Committee Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh, D-Baltimore.

The Senate might cut the fee in half, to $15 a year, said Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore.

McIntosh said she hasn't decided what the fee should be, but strongly believes that everyone should pay.

"When you say Maryland you think of the bay. It's our quality of life. Everybody ought to be proud to pay," she said. "This is the biggest opportunity we have in a decade or two to do something about the bay."

Farmers have already contributed to the cleanup by reducing runoff, she said.

"I believe that the farming community has felt, with some justification, singled out as polluters of the bay," McIntosh said.

Advocates for the Chesapeake Bay and other environmentalists praised the cleanup plan at a hearing Wednesday, saying it would be the most significant law since Maryland banned phosphate detergents in the mid-1980s.

"Man has abused this pristine body of water for many, many years. We must now begin to restore water quality," Rich Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, told the Environmental Matters Committee.

Improving the sewer systems that handle 95 percent of the state's waste water is one of the most cost-effective ways to clean up the bay, Secretary of the Environment Kendl Philbrick said.

It would cut the amount of nitrogen flowing into the bay by 7.5 million pounds per year, which represents one-third of the amount Maryland has committed to cutting by 2010 under a pact made with other bay states, said Bernie Marczyk, a policy adviser to Ehrlich.

Ehrlich chose not to include septic users in his legislation, but Marczyk said the administration is willing to work with legislative leaders on the issue.

"We've struggled on the issue of septic," he said.

Large industrial sewer customers, who would be charged up to $150,000 a year based on usage, complained at the hearing that the fee would be an unfair burden on them.

Some, including Eastalco Aluminum Inc. of Frederick County, Md., said they already pay for their own waste water treatment systems.

Secretary of Business and Economic Development Aris Melissaratos said every business in the state relies on the bay and therefore has a corporate responsibility to help restore it.

Local government representatives testified that the sewer fee could be a burden to their customers, who already face sewer bill increases.

The Maryland Association of Counties asked that public facilities such as schools, jails and community colleges be exempt from the fee.

Also, the 3 percent local governments get to keep might not be enough to cover their costs of collecting the money, they said.

It's unclear how the septic fee would be collected.

Hollinger suggested it could be added to homeowners' property tax bills.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he's not happy about the proposal because county residents could end up paying more money than they get back.

"If the vote were today I'd be voting against it. I don't know if they're going to fix this thing or not," he said.

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