Doubling or tripling flush tax proposed to task force

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By Greg Masters

Capital News Service

A toiletA governor’s task force on sustainable growth on Tuesday heard a proposal to double and eventually triple Marylanders’ annual water and sewer fee of $30 for Chesapeake Bay restoration.

Because of funding shortfalls, the workgroup also recommended extending Maryland’s timeframe to meet its bay cleanup goals to 2025, which is the Environmental Protection Agency’s deadline, instead of the self-imposed deadline of 2020 that Gov. Martin O’Malley set last year.

While Maryland should continue to move at the accelerated pace set by O’Malley, no funding scenario would get the state to its goals by 2020, said John Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and chair of the funding workgroup that made the recommendations.

“To suggest that, in the face of what we’ve seen here in this workgroup, we’re going to meet all this by 2020 I think goes away from the whole notion of being candid and transparent with the public,” Griffin said.

In 2010, the EPA established a “pollution diet,” known as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, for Maryland and other bay watershed states. Maryland must reduce nitrogen pollution from urban areas and septic systems by about 7.6 million pounds annually to meet the TMDL requirement for developed areas.

To meet that goal, the state plans to retrofit stormwater management systems and septic systems, as well as finish upgrading its 67 major wastewater treatment plants.

But the Bay Restoration Fund, created in 2004 to finance the treatment plant upgrades, faces a funding shortfall of about $385 million, and funding for retrofits is also uncertain.

Doubling flush tax first proposed last year

The proposal to raise the so-called flush tax is not new. The state Bay Restoration Fund Advisory Committee recommended doubling the fee to the legislature last year, as reported in January. But it takes on new weight coming from an O’Malley cabinet secretary.

“When you compare the need to the amount of revenue we’re bringing in and the timeframe we committed to doing it, it just doesn’t match up,” said Erik Fisher, a workgroup member and land use planner with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The recommendation that Griffin made to the Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal would increase the average residential fee from $30 per year to $60 per year starting in the 2013 fiscal year and $90 per year in the 2015 fiscal year. Starting in fiscal 2016, the fee would be indexed to inflation, with a 3 percent cap per year.

Fisher favored a higher increase in the bay restoration fee, with an additional increment to $10 a month, or $120 a year.

“I’m concerned that even the scenario that was recommended will not reach, will not fulfill that commitment,” Fisher said.

Some members of the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission, which also took part in the task force meeting, raised concerns about the recommendations.

“The concern is that if we do move from 2020 to 2025, what certainty, what assurance, do we have that the goals for the bay cleanup will be achieved?” said Alan Girard, senior land use policy manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Girard said he thinks the fee increase will help Maryland meet its bay cleanup goals, but the task force needs to “get it done right.”

“We want to make sure that the assumptions that go into the calculations are correct and that if the money’s raised, it provides the results that we need,” he said.

O’Malley spokeswoman Takirra Winfield said the governor will continue to aim for 2020 if the task force recommends the deadline extension in its final report.

“We’ve been a leader and we’re going to continue to be a leader. It makes more sense for us to aim for a positive result sooner rather than later,” Winfield said.

The task force’s final report to O’Malley is due Dec. 1.