Higher Sewer Fee Plan Looms as Cecil County Faces Mandated $40M Upgrade of Seneca Point; Broomell Questions Technology
A new study of sewer user fees is being drafted as part of the new Cecil County budget process and the countyâ€™s public works director warned Tuesday that the fees paid by current and future users of the Seneca Point treatment plant will have to rise to offset some of the costs of a $40 million upgrade required by state environmental standards.
â€śWe are in the process of updatingâ€ť a previous proposal for sewer service rates and â€śitâ€™s going to have to be increasedâ€”thatâ€™s not a secret,â€ť said Scott Flanigan, the countyâ€™s Director of Public Works.
Last year, a majority of the former Board of Commissioners refused to approve most of the higher fees called for in a previous study of rates and fees. Sewage treatment services are considered an â€śenterpriseâ€ť fund separate from general county tax revenues and the costs of providing such sewer services are supposed to be paid by those residents and businesses whose properties are connected to the system.
But if county officials refuseâ€”as the Three Amigos faction of the Commissioners did last yearâ€”to raise user fees sufficiently to cover costs, general tax money ends up supporting the system. Much of the countyâ€™s residential properties rely on private septic systems and do not benefit from the sewage plants.
Flanigan briefed the new County Council on the ongoing plans for state-required upgrades to the North East River plant, known as Seneca Point, at a Council worksession Tuesday morning. County Executive Tari Moore, who normally does not attend the Council meetings in Elkton, came into the room and sat with Flanigan as he explained the fiscal and technical realities of the project. Moore will be presenting her operating and capital budget proposals to the Council within the next two months.
The project is expected to cost about $40 million and the state is expected to contribute $10.9 million, Flanigan told Cecil Times. Engineering and design work has already begun and the county has invested several million in such work. The countyâ€™s current Fiscal 2013 capital improvement budget allocated $2.88 million for the current budget year, with $21 million slated for Fiscal 2014 and $10.9 million in Fiscal 2015. That budget was approved by the County Commissioners last May.
The county government has not yet worked out all the details of how the project would be fundedâ€”through a combination of bonds or loans from the stateâ€™s revolving loan fund as well as user fees for current residents and connection charges for new customers.
County Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4)â€”a member of the Amigos faction that opposed rate increases last year– on Tuesday questioned the â€śmembraneâ€ť technology that is planned for the upgrade project and suggested that a cheaper method be used. â€śWhy are we going for the Cadillac of treatment plants,â€ť she declared. She claimed that the technology questions and its costs were â€śnot brought to the attentionâ€ť of the Commissioners in the past.
Flanigan said that claim was â€śnot accurateâ€ť and pointed out that the Commissioners had approved the capital budget for the project. He said the membrane technology was the best for the long-term utility of Seneca Point and it had previously been approved.
To change the technology now, after the county has invested money in engineering and design work, amounted to deciding to â€śback up the truckâ€ť and â€śthrow in the trash can a couple million dollars of work,â€ť Flanigan said.
Under questioning by Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1) about the technology, Flanigan said that apart from the state mandates to reduce â€śnutrientâ€ť outflows from Seneca Point to limit water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the county had recognized that Seneca Point was the lynchpin for future sewer service to the growth corridor.
The county had a â€śholy crapâ€ť moment several years ago, Flanigan said, and officials worried that â€śit would be a closed for business sign on Route 40â€ť if the plant were not upgraded. The membrane technology could be easily modified to meet future business expansion in the growth corridor, he added.
Meanwhile, the county is continuing negotiations with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) over a timetable for the mandated upgrades to Seneca Point. An earlier schedule was delayed by an MDE-required series of tests to prove that the plant could not meet new tougher nutrient discharge standards without a costly upgrade. The tests showed the upgrade was indeed necessary, Flanigan said.
So now the county is seeking to revise the deadline for completion of the project to mid-2016, with another year to iron out any operating wrinkles.
The Seneca Point plant was not included in the contract for sale of most county sewage treatment plants to the private Artesian firm. That deal collapsed, however, when the Three Amigos faction of the County Commissioners (Broomell, Michael Dunn and now ousted James Mullin) sought to block implementation of the contract. As a result, the county and local sewer service customers are now solely responsible for financing any needed improvements of all county sewage treatment plants.