Higher flush taxes, city water bills could be coming, Aberdeen city officials warn

Residents of Aberdeen and other small municipalities in Maryland that upgraded their wastewater treatment under state and federal mandates could soon be facing higher state fees and, possibly higher city water bills, city officials warn.

As Aberdeen gets closer to finishing its enhanced nutrient removal, or ENR, project for its sewage treatment plant, the state is still struggling with the cost of the project, City Manager Doug Miller said during Monday's city council meeting.

"The state drastically underestimated the cost of these projects," Miller said in reference to Senate Bill 240 introduced by the Maryland General Assembly.

In trying to catch up with the "miscalculation" the state made in 2003, the General Assembly is looking to increase the Bay restoration fee, better known as the "flush tax," and tie it to consumption.

Miller said this means a family of four that uses 250 gallons of water per day could see its fee rise from $30 to more than $100.

"[Maryland Municipal League] is looking at this very closely and we want to make sure our residents are not overburdened," he said.

The city's public works director, Matt Lapinsky, showed a presentation on the status of the ENR project Monday, going over the massive new development.

Lapinsky said again the project needs to be looked at in the light of helping to save the legacy of the Chesapeake Bay.

"This is something that I really get a lot of pleasure out of, my kids get a lot of pleasure of," he said. "It's an expensive process but if you look at the legacy we're salvaging and keeping for our children and grandchildren, it's something to behold."

Aberdeen is 607 days into the project, and Lapinsky explained it entails building things like denitrification filters, two basins with a capacity of 1.5 million gallons each, a new multi-disk screen at the main pump station to collect rags and other floating objects and sodium hydroxide storage in case of rains or high water flow.

The public works department is having an engineer assess operational changes at the plant and its costs.

Lapinsky said electricity costs will increase with the addition of new processes and pumps, more sludge production will mean increased costs in sludge handling and other additions will require greater staffing.

Residents can stay tuned to the status of the project at http://www.aberdeenwwtpenr.com.

Both Mayor Mike Bennett and Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck criticized residents who complain about high water and sewer bills, and the ENR project.

Landbeck said people should realize how much water and sewer costs the government, and Bennett said the ENR project is a state mandate that the city must fulfill.

Sewer collapse

City manager Doug Miller said a sewer on Carter Street has also collapsed, and the city needs to immediately begin emergency repairs that will cost about $135,000.

"We can't wait three weeks so just so you know, we will get that started," he said.

Habitat for Humanity debate

The city council also heard Monday from both supporters and a detractor of a proposed ordinance to give a tax break to Aberdeen properties owned by Habitat for Humanity.

Joann Blewett, executive director for Habitat for Humanity Susquehanna, said the organization has finished 64 homes and is planning to do a "blitz build" in May, building two houses in five days on Baltimore Street in the city.

She said the nonprofit just finished a rehab on Washington Street, in which a Habitat home was recycled after the original homeowner moved out.

Also, students at Harford Technical High School will rebuild a home that will be moved to Edmund Street.

"We are just pleased with the support we have gotten from the city over the years," Blewett told the council. "It is this sort of support that can help us continue the work we are doing…All these ways government can support nonprofits helps us continue the work to revitalize the community."

One person, Karen Heavey of West Bel Air Avenue, spoke at the public hearing in opposition of the tax break.

Heavey said she means no disrespect to Habitat but noted there are many charitable organizations.

"However, this particular ordinance singles them out and gives them advantage over other groups that may possibly be doing the same thing and may be deserving," Heavey said. "I really don't think our taxes should go to nonprofits, charitable groups, as taxes or line budget items. I think our money should be used to run the government."

Heavey offered amendments for the ordinance, such as putting a cap on what the city can afford to give in forgiveness and requiring an annual review so the city can decide if the percent should be adjusted from time to time.

"I don't think we should leave the door wide open and put the city in a bind," she said.

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