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Sewer bill blunders baffling

'Flush tax' billing confusion widespread

'Flush tax' billing confusion widespread

November 09, 2005|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

WASHINGTON COUNTY

tiffanya@herald-mail.com

Greg Smela said he watched his wife "have a cow" last week when she opened their water bill.

"$30,000 for the septic fee?" said Smela, of Boonsboro. "That couldn't be right."

It wasn't.

The bill, which the county was sending for the state, was $30.

But there was another problem: The Smelas don't have a septic system. Like everyone else in Boonsboro, they get their water and sewer services from the town.

The Washington County Department of Budget and Finance Department received several complaints Tuesday from residents who were improperly billed or double-charged as part of the Bay Restoration Fund program.

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"People were complaining because we didn't have our files straight, but this was no easy task," said Jeannine Klein, who handles bill processing for the county.

There was also confusion about the way numbers are listed on the bills. The number 30 is listed as 30.000. Many people thought they were receiving $30,000 bills, said Debra Murray, director of budget and finance.

"That wasn't a typo," Murray said. "People were mistaking the decimal point for a comma."

Local governments were charged with distributing the bills for the Bay Restoration Fund, also called the "flush tax," said Richard McIntire, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

But confusion over which households had septic systems and which households were to be billed by a municipality or the county has caused problems for residents like Smela.

Smela lives in the Crestview subdivision. Boonsboro Town Manager John Kendall said some Crestview residents were double-billed because the county was unaware that region was being billed by the town.

Keedysville residents also were double-charged, Kendall said.

The county had to cross-reference property data provided by the state in order to figure out who to bill for septic fees.

"Of course, there were people who just fell through the cracks," Klein said.

The Bay Restoration Fund went into effect last year as part of an effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay. The flush tax is $2.50 a month for households served by wastewater treatment plants and $30 a year for households using septic systems.

While the wastewater charge went into effect last spring, the septic system fees didn't roll out until October, McIntire said.

Last month, the county mailed around 18,000 letters to presumed septic system users in order to determine who handled their billing, Klein said. But Klein said only 500 people replied. People who didn't respond received county bills, many of which arrived last week.

Klein said she was unsure how many people might have been improperly billed.

The county also might have received unreliable information from the state, said Jay Prager, the state's deputy program manager for wastewater permits.

The state gave the county information on the number of households with septic systems. However, the state now realizes it might have mistakenly included some properties, Prager said.

"We had to figure out who all had septic systems in a short period of time," Prager said. "We were trying to develop perfect lists from an imperfect system."

Klein said customers will be credited for improper charges and asked those who feel they have been improperly billed to call the finance department at 240-313-2300.

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