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Cecil County Council: Sewer Solstice, Deja vu Do-overs; DPW Chief, Broomell Encore Past Debate

July 31, 2013
By Nancy Schwerzler

Elsewhere it might be close to the summer solstice, but in Elkton, it was the Cecil County Council’s sewer solstice– as members danced around the fiscal and political bonfires of boosting sewer fees to reflect actual costs of services and future economic development implications of decisions made now.

If you thought such decisions had actually been made in the county’s Fiscal 2014 budget adopted by the Council in May– one of the few major decisions made by the County Council to alter the County Executive’s budget—well, this is the land of the do-over. The issue came back on the legislative stage for an encore performance on Tuesday. It was yet another do-over—of the sort that plagued the old County Commissioners form of government in the past—but this time the architects of the do-over were the new ruling majority of the County Council.

That majority—consisting of Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) and Councilors Alan McCarthy (R-1) and Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2)– recently voted to delay their previous budget decision to boost sewer hook-up fees for new developments– from $8,000 per living unit to $12,000– from the budget-approved effective date of 7/1/13 to 10/2/13.

One of the boldest initiatives of new County Executive Tari Moore’s budget was her plan to significantly boost sewer plant hook-up fees, dubbed “major facilities” fees, from $8,000 to $16,100—because past county elected officials were too politically chicken for many years to boost user fees costs to cover the actual costs of providing sewer and sewage treatment services in the more urbanized areas of the county. But the Council scaled back her proposal from $16,100 to $12,000.

However, after a few belated howls from local developers—who claimed they were unaware of the actual, scaled-back fee increase enacted in the budget—the new majority of the Council opted for a delay and potential do-over. In a highly unusual move for a Council worksession, the Council on Tuesday even invited public comments from developers and others concerned about the fee increases.

But county fiscal officials say just the three-month delay will boost un-covered costs by $250,000 and the lower approved fees of the budget will force delays in other needed sewage treatment facilities upgrades and long-neglected routine maintenance. If the Council were to scale back the fee boosts even further now, there could be even more significant fiscal impacts—but the precise amount is unclear, depending on what the Council ultimately decides to do.

The irony of the more than two-hour discussion on Tuesday was that many of the same issues were explored in excruciating detail during the budget process at a 4/17/13 worksession– at which Scott Flanigan, the county’s Director of Public Works, put on a slide show, stage show and almost Shakespearean performance that dramatically illustrated the need for higher sewer plant user fees so as to cover needed services and state-mandated environmental upgrades. (And Flanigan then uttered one of the most memorable lines in recent county political history: the sewer crisis was a ‘holy crap moment.’)

[SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/04/cecil-county-holy-crap-moment-sewage-plant-upgrade-flushes-out-debate-on-costs-pay-now-or-later/]

Flanigan and his staff gamely put on an updated version of the same presentation on Tuesday. And he even re-engaged discussion with Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4)– who has sought to use the sewage user fee question as a wedge to re-open a separate, previous County Council decision, made as part of the budget– to use a “membrane” technology to upgrade the Seneca Point sewage treatment plant to meet state environmental mandates as well as accommodate future economic development and growth needs in the county.

But Hodge repeatedly sought to rein in – with limited results– Broomell’s assertions, with Hodge saying that the Seneca Point technology question had been previously decided by a majority of the Council and the discussion of overall hook-up fees was a separate issue.

Flanigan sought to re-educate the County Council, and a handful of developers and builders in the audience, about the detailed “rate study” made by an independent consultant. (That consultant made a detailed presentation at the earlier April session of the County Council.)

Rate studies “are not surgical instruments,” Flanigan said Tuesday. They are “planning tools,” and projections of economic conditions and trends that are subject to constant change. But, he added, “for decades” the past county Commissioners “kept fees artificially low” so they did not actually reflect the costs of sewer services. As a result, needed maintenance was ignored and facilities fell into serious disrepair, he said.

“The county has been debating this issue for decades,” Flanigan said. Local officials chose to “kick the can down the road with the expectation that future elected officials” would make the tough decisions, he added.

But Broomell insisted that long-range decisions, such as technology for future upgrading of Seneca Point, were less important than the need to accommodate “shovel ready projects” and she said the county should not be “biting off more than it can chew.”

Representatives of local developers were invited to speak at the worksession, and a spokesman for the Clark Turner building enterprise—developers of the Charlestown Crossing housing development now under construction—spoke forcefully against any increase in the sewer hook-up fees. And a representative of the Maryland Association of Homebuilders said that previously approved construction should be “grandfathered” from any new increase in hook-up fees.

The Clark Turner interests have vocally objected to the increases and met with various county officials, including the County Executive, recently to object to the higher sewer hookup fees. Broomell, who usually attacks any and all developers, said that she had met with Clark Turner representatives, and she observed that any time she agrees with a developer indicates that the overall issue is one of broad concern.

County Council members did not indicate during the Tuesday worksession what their next step might be. But some sources suggested that the event was orchestrated to show concern and “listening” to politically potent developer interests– while still leaving a clear option to re-affirm the Council’s previous decision to implement some higher fees. But the fee delay and public discussion would give developer interests the impression that the Council was listening to their concerns and had cut the much higher fees proposed by the County Executive.

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6 Responses to Cecil County Council: Sewer Solstice, Deja vu Do-overs; DPW Chief, Broomell Encore Past Debate

  1. Ken Wiggins on August 1, 2013 at 11:58 am

    It is my understanding that our county sewer and water infrastructure is designed to be financially self supporting by the users. If expenses increase, then user fees must correlate to cover the tab. The only alternative is to cut services somehow in order to lower costs. Well, maybe not the only alternative.

    The users in this case are seeking to reduce the excessive cost of their sewer hook ups. Understandable perhaps, but who will pick up the tab? I have a well and septic system and I must pay whatever it costs me to install and maintain (plus taxes and fees). What subsidy am I entitled to? How can I get the county to lower my costs?

    Are the County taxpayers to absorb these additional expenses in order to subsidize those who are upset at having to pay the actual cost of the services they receive? It kinda sounds like a welfare scheme. Instead of voting for hidden subsidies, I think the Council should consider voting to simply write checks to those with their hands out. That would at least have the virtue of visibility, and we’d know exactly how much we were paying, and to whom we were paying off.

  2. Mike R on August 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Following in the footsteps of the federal and state government, lower rates for the big boys and screw the middle class. These developers make plenty of money and should pay the bulk of the additional costs.

    Elections are coming –do you not think this is a move for electoral candidates to get large funding from the developers? Well I do! No discounts for developers.

  3. Diana Broomell on August 2, 2013 at 7:16 am

    The DPW Director has never provided the data for going with the MBR System and has consistently withheld and misrepresented information to the Commissioners and Council on this issue. The fact remains we can meet the State mandate of ENR level of treatment by going with the Denitrification Filters. This technology would only cost 3 million more as opposed to the $30 million price tag for MBR which would only take us right back to the same capacity we currently have (2mgd). With the $3 million denitrification investment it’s estimated we can expand to 5 – 7 mgd.

    If we were to remove the MBR and the Port Deposit Interceptor Projects, close to $50 million could be trimmed off the rate study which would significantly reign in hookup and rate fees. I’m not an engineer but you can see from the MDE and the GHD Consultant Letters that this information was verified. Director Flanigan withheld these letters from the Commissioners.

    More on this issue at http://dbroomell.blogspot.com/2013/06/how-did-cecil-county-waste-30-million.html

    • Jackie Gregory on August 2, 2013 at 6:26 pm

      How many tens of millions did we lose when Commissioner Broomell sabotoged the Artesian contract? We would be in a much better position financially in being able to make required upgrades if Broomell hadn’t breached the contract — so her statements on misrepresentation and excessive cost are drenched in hypocristy.

  4. Joe C on August 3, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    There is much confusion in this article and in some of the responses; there are difference between “hook-up fee/major facility fee” and user’s fees and project cost. As someone who has gone through this twice, please let me shed some light on the matter.

    Hook-up fees are supposed to be used to cover the cost of future capacity expansion that the new user is now using with his new service. Service fees are to cover the cost of treating the wastewater which leaves your house. Project cost are cost which are attributable to a specific project, for example the Port Deposit interceptor. That cost should be borne out by those who benefit from that project.

    What is being attempted here is to transfer project cost and major facility cost unto the current users to benefit those who want an almost free ride with reduced hook-fees. The users will be forced in the future to pay for capacity expansion and project cost because the proper hook-up fee was not charged.

    The only reason the hook fee rates are being lowered is because special access and favors are being granted to a certain developer to avoid significant cost as their new units come on line.

    Unfortunately, it is nothing more than typical dirty politics at play in Cecil County, it works like this “I give you nice big campaign donation so that you can turn around after you are elected and give me special treatment and favoritism.” If you do not believe me just check the campaign donations of those now in power and it will be become very clear. This is all available on the state board of elections web site.

  5. Joe C on August 11, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Well I guess Councilwomen Diana Broomell was right to question the membrane technology proposed to be used at Seneca Point, after learning what has happened in Perryville. That would be grand, we pay 30 million extra for a system that does not work and then we pollute the bay and get big fines from the state. Now, will the “Free Spending Three” continue down a questionable path or will they sit down and think this whole thing out like we elected them to do.

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