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'Flush tax' vote is set for Friday

March 18, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Washington County's lone Democrat probably will be the only local lawmaker to vote against a new sewage fee when it comes up for a final vote in the House of Delegates on Friday.

Under the so-called "flush tax," public sewer customers would be charged a flat rate of $30 a year and septic users would be charged 8 cents a gallon each time they have their tanks pumped.

First proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, the sewer fee would raise $66 million a year for upgrades to sewage treatment plants that empty into the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

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Another $12 million would be generated by the proposed septic fee, which would be paid by haulers when they empty their trucks at waste water treatment plants.

Washington County's four Republican delegates said they likely will support the initiative despite some concerns.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said Wednesday that he will vote against the fee.

Donoghue said he believes Hagerstown residents should not subsidize the cleanup effort.

"I think it's wrong for the people in Washington County to feel guilty about the condition of the Chesapeake Bay," he said.

Under the proposal, the state's 66 largest sewage treatment plants - including Hagerstown's - would be first in line to get grants because of the large volumes they handle, Environmental Matters Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh said.

Homeowners who use septic systems could apply for loans and grants to improve their systems.

The grants could not be used to convert septic users to public sewer.

Farmers would get funds to plant cover crops to prevent runoff.

In another nod to farmers, the bill also streamlines farm runoff regulations that resulted from the Nutrient Management law.

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said Wednesday that he supports bay cleanup but disagrees with this approach because it does not address the contribution of neighboring states to the environmental problem.

"Maryland's the one that's been the front-runner and I think there's a lot of inequities," he said.

Breichner said he would have preferred a mandate on local governments to meet tougher environmental standards. Two years ago, Hagerstown spent about $9 million to meet current standards.

"We've been pouring a lot of money into our sewer plants and this comes back and penalizes us in a way," he said.

Donoghue has sponsored a bill to exempt Hagerstown sewer customers from the fee.

A hearing on the bill is to be held Friday in the House Environmental Matters Committee.

McIntosh said cleanup of the bay is everyone's responsibility.

The House is expected to pass the legislation Friday, sending it to the Senate, which may make changes to the proposal.

In response to questions, the House exempted homeowners with holding tanks after it was discovered they would pay exorbitant fees under the proposal. However, a task force is to study how to include them in the program.

Those who never pump out their septic systems and those who spread the waste onto farm fields for fertilizer won't have to pay the fee, McIntosh said.

Some homeowners might be able to avoid paying the fee if they have their tanks pumped by an out-of-state hauler, she said.

If a large number of people skirt the fee, the committee plans to make corrections through legislation in future years, she said.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said most of his concerns about the legislation's effect on Washington County have been addressed.

He said he believes it will help the Boonsboro area, which is struggling with poor water quality due to nearby septic systems.

Shank, Del. Richard Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, and Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said they want to listen to the floor debate before making their final decision on the vote.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Allegany/Washington, said he plans to vote for the bill.

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