Cecil County Considers Hiking Sewer Hookup Fees; Mullin Suggests “Hallway” Talks Instead of Public Debate
The Cecil County Commissioners began a pointed debate Tuesday over proposals to raise sewer connection fees, especially for new developments, but put off scheduled action after Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) challenged some commissioners to spell out how they would pay for rising costs without increased fees. Commissioners’ President James Mullin (R-1) suggested commissioners “talk in the hallway” instead of debating the issue in public.
It was the latest postponement of a decision on the issue in recent months. In a last minute move when the Commissioners adopted the county budget in May, they voted 4-1 to delay action on the sewer connection fee increases, with Moore casting the lone dissenting vote.
At Tuesday’s morning worksession, Moore asked fellow board members how they would vote when the issue came up on the agenda for a formal commissioners meeting later in the day.
“I’m on record as being opposed,” said Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3).
Moore asked Dunn how he would pay for the costs of the “enterprise fund,” which is supposed to be self-supporting from fees paid by users of sewage treatment systems, rather than passing on costs to all county residents including those who are not hooked up to sewers.
Dunn said commissioners should look for “creative solutions.”
Moore shot back and asked Dunn what his “creative solutions” were for the problem, and Dunn indicated he had none.
“I’m looking for creative solutions from you,” Moore told Dunn. “We’re all faced with the reality of our job,” Moore added.
Pending before the Commissioners was a proposal to raise connection fees, especially for new developments, as a way to make new projects contribute more to the costs of sewage system upgrades and repairs, which long-time users have been paying for for many years.
The proposal would have boosted new residential development hook-up fees from $6,000 to $9,000 per living unit while existing homes hooking up to the systems would face a $4,500 fee instead of the current $2,500 charge.
Moore asked Scott Flanigan, the county’s Director of Public Works, what the options were if the hookup fees were not raised to cover costs. He said the options were:
–If the sewer “enterprise fund” ran out of money, the county could be forced to pump general fund money—derived from taxes paid by all county residents—into the sewage operations;
–Don’t maintain the systems and run the risk of sewage overflows that threaten public health and the environment and face hefty fines from the state for violations;
–Block expansion of sewage service in the growth corridor of the county and give up long planned-for economic development projects in the Route 40-I/95 corridor;
–Shift much of the costs to current sewer system users and make them pay for costly service repairs and needed environmental upgrades while giving new development a relatively free-ride with low new connection fees.
If the Commissioners are unwilling to make a decision to raise new connection fees, Flanigan said he would ask the Commissioners to pick one of the four options he outlined.
Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) said he was worried that some development projects had based their plans on existing fees and suggested a “grandfather” clause for projects already in the planning pipeline.
Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) said she had questions about the proposal and could not “proceed in good conscience” at this time. She called for putting off a decision: “If we wait a month I don’t think it’s going to hurt anything.”
“This is an impact fee,” on new development, Hodge said, even if it is not formally called that. “I know you love impact fees,” he told Broomell.
“You’re putting words in my mouth,” Broomell replied. She said a true impact fee on new development would help offset costs of schools, roads and public safety, while this fee only applies to sewer services.
Mullin sought to cut off the debate, saying, “I don’t think we need to take a pre-vote…we can talk in the hallway.”
Moore disagreed: “I think this should be a very public discussion of the options,” she said. “It’s a public process…that deserves public discussion.”
Later in the day, the commissioners agreed to postpone further action or discussion until an August 2 worksession.
Meanwhile, the county continues closed-door discussions over the pending sale of most county water and sewer plants to the private Artesian operation. The sale, agreed to nearly three years ago, was delayed by legal challenges filed by the ARCA community group. A recent Court of Appeals ruling held the county had the legal power to sell the facilities. (The county will retain ownership of the Seneca Point facility, which will need upgrades in the future to comply with state and federal environmental rules.)
The lawsuit cost the county over $203,000 in legal fees. On Tuesday, the Baltimore lawyer who represented the county in that case appeared in Elkton for a private meeting with the commissioners on the Artesian issue.