Cecil County Council: Sewer Solstice, Deja vu Do-overs; DPW Chief, Broomell Encore Past Debate
Elsewhere it might be close to the summer solstice, but in Elkton, it was the Cecil County Councilâs 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 countyâs Fiscal 2014 budget adopted by the Council in May– one of the few major decisions made by the County Council to alter the County Executiveâs budgetâwell, 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-overâof the sort that plagued the old County Commissioners form of government in the pastâbut this time the architects of the do-over were the new ruling majority of the County Council.
That majorityâconsisting 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 Mooreâs budget was her plan to significantly boost sewer plant hook-up fees, dubbed âmajor facilitiesâ fees, from $8,000 to $16,100âbecause 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 developersâwho claimed they were unaware of the actual, scaled-back fee increase enacted in the budgetâthe 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 impactsâbut 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 countyâs 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 âholy crap moment.â)
[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 âmembraneâ 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 â with limited results– Broomellâs 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 ârate studyâ made by an independent consultant. (That consultant made a detailed presentation at the earlier April session of the County Council.)
Rate studies âare not surgical instruments,â Flanigan said Tuesday. They are âplanning tools,â and projections of economic conditions and trends that are subject to constant change. But, he added, âfor decadesâ the past county Commissioners âkept fees artificially lowâ 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.
âThe county has been debating this issue for decades,â Flanigan said. Local officials chose to âkick the can down the road with the expectation that future elected officialsâ 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 âshovel ready projectsâ and she said the county should not be âbiting off more than it can chew.â
Representatives of local developers were invited to speak at the worksession, and a spokesman for the Clark Turner building enterpriseâdevelopers of the Charlestown Crossing housing development now under constructionâspoke 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 âgrandfatheredâ 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 âlisteningâ to politically potent developer interests– while still leaving a clear option to re-affirm the Councilâs 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.