Chesapeake Bay cleanup fee increase proposed

A state task force called Tuesday for tripling the "flush fee" Maryland homeowners pay as a way to help finance an accelerated cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

The 28-member task force, appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley to tackle sewage and growth issues, voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the $2.50 monthly bay restoration fee be doubled next year and increased to $7.50 a month by 2015. The fee is levied on water and sewer bills for utility customers, and on property tax bills for homeowners on septic systems.

The added revenues would cover the costs of upgrading the state's largest sewage treatment plants, help homeowners install less-polluting septic systems and assist localities in controlling polluted storm runoff from their streets and parking lots.

The task force also recommended increasing the fee 1 to 3 percent a year in later years to cover inflation, but then rolling it back to $30 a year by 2030 if the state has completed its cleanup responsibilities under the Environmental Protection Agency's bay "pollution diet."

The fee increase was one of a batch of recommendations agreed on by the task force, which Del. Maggie McIntosh, its co-chair, said was drawing up "a blueprint for water quality and growth in Maryland." She said the funds raised by the fee increase would finance projects that would boost employment throughout the state.

It drew support from environmentalists and builders alike, who've pressed for more funding for the long-running bay restoration effort. Tommy Landers of Environment Maryland called it "a smart down payment on clean water and a healthier future for our kids." Kathleen Maloney, lobbyist for the Maryland State Builders Association, said the fee increase is "necessary," though developers may oppose other task force proposals regarding development relying on septic systems.

"When you commit the state to this massive cleanup effort, you have a responsibility to make sure the funding is in place to pay for it," said Maloney.

But she predicted that at least some lawmakers would blanch at asking taxpayers to pay more for the environment along with other tax and fee increases being pushed to finance highways, transit and other projects.

O'Malley's spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, was noncommittal. "The governor understands the need to clean up the bay and create a more sustainable future" she said. "He will consider the recommendations, but he is mindful of the costs, especially to those on a fixed income and to Maryland's seniors".

The lone dissenter on the task force was state Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Republican from Frederick County, who predicted that the additional bay cleanup funds would be raided or borrowed because the state has yet to effectively control spending.

"People are paying plenty," Brinkley said. "There are a tremendous amount of unfunded needs now, so discussion about funding those is one thing," he added, "But then extending the reach of all these mandates and using it to justify the increase is wrong.

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