O'Malley flush fee hike gets pushback

Gov. Martin O'Malley's bid to hike the "flush fee" to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay got some pushback in Annapolis Tuesday when lawmakers expressed concern about big jumps in what businesses would have to pay under the administration's plan.

O'Malley has proposed doubling the revenues raised for the Bay Restoration Fund by the fee, which is paid by every household and business in the state.  The funds are needed to finish upgrading the state's 67 largest sewage plants so they'll take out more of the nitrogen and phosphorus fouling the bay's waters.

No one questioned that, But the pushback comes because O'Malley's seeking to change the fee from a flat $2.50 monthly charge to one based on water consumption.  Households and businesses using relatively less water will see smaller increases, while big users could see their fee more than double. Homeowners on wells and septic systems would see their fees simply double.

Lawmakers questioned the new fee formula in SB240, pointing to a fiscal note by legislative analysts that said many small businesses can expect to see their fees go up by 250 percent or more.  The analysts said that would have a "meaningful adverse impact" on enterprises that use a lot of water, including apartment complexes, restaurants, grocery stores and hospitals.

The big jump would occur because the governor's bill would eliminate the sliding fee schedule  the state now uses, charging large commercial and industrial water users less per gallon than an individual household pays.  Without the sliding scale, businessew would be assessed the same consumption-based rate as households, so th.  A restaurant that uses 42,500 gallons of water monthly, for instance, could see its fee jump from $168 a month to $630 - a quadrupling.  A hospital using 2 million gallons of water monthly would see its fee jump from $8,000 to $31,000 a month.

Some members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee balked at the governor's bill, pointing to the legislative analysts' predictions that the increase would more than double revenues and hit many businesses hard. 

"It's death by a thousand cuts," said Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican representing parts of Baltimore and Harford counties.  "It's just too much."

Robert M. Summers, Maryland secretary of the environment, defended the change outside the hearing room, suggesting it was a matter of fairness to stop letting big users of water and sewage treatment plants pay lower rates.

"Are they willing to pay more so their grocery store can pay less?" Summers asked.  He pointed out that the flush fee is a relatively small portion of utility customers' water and sewer bill, and said it would remain so - no more than 12 percent - even if increased as the governor wants.

Some local officials who testified in support of increasing the flush fee, though, asked lawmakers to keep it simple and just double it from $2.50 to $5 a month.  Small municipalities would need help calculating a consumption-based fee, they said, and not all utilities base their billing now on customers' water use.

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