CHESTERTOWN - A hearing on amendments to the county's Water and Sewer Plan drew a packed house, Tuesday night, and resulted in public testimony that went far afield in the course of nearly two hours.
At the end, the Kent County Commissioners noted that written testimony will be accepted by email or in person at the county office by 4:30 p.m. Monday.
The changes to the plan were summarized by County Engineer Jim Wright as “changing various numbers and housekeeping,” along with adding or updating the status of three projects: the Galena wastewater plant upgrade and possible service to Georgetown and Olivet Hill; the Worton sewer system's mains upgrade, which is on hold at present; and a revision to Betterton's service area maps to include 14 properties that have long been connected to town utilities, but never correctly identified.
Public Works Director Wayne Morris said a feasibility study for a Georgetown sewer connection put the cost at about $1.2 million for additional treatment capacity, and $3.3 million for the collection lines. He said at least 50 percent would be funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Commissioners Ron Fithian, William Pickrum and Billy Short heard from 17 different citizens out of more than 60 filling the room. At times, the hearing was more of a dialogue than testimony read by citizens.
The proceedings started slowly due to technical problems with the room's sound system.
As it turned out, no one objected to the idea of connecting areas in the county to a state-of-the-art treatment plant and everyone thought sharing the burden was fair. Rather, their concerns were the overall cost and how the cost would be repaid: by higher utility bills, by higher taxes, or by some blend of the two.
Emmett Duke and John Burke spoke for the Sassafras River Association. Riverkeeper Duke said the Sassafras is federally listed as impaired by nutrients; algae blooms this past summer were worse than ever. The sewer connections would help Dyer Creek and Mill Creek as well, he said.
Burke said putting an estimated 177 houses on nitrogen-removing septic systems would cost about $5 million total without being as effective at treating wastewater. He also cited the roughly $80 million annual economic benefit from the Chester River in a recent Chester River Association report, and said the value of the Sassafras and its marinas would not be as much, but is still many millions.
The residents who commented came from all around the county. Most said they pay $275 to $350 a quarter and do not want to see that increase.
Bill Crowding said utility bills increase each year by up to 4 percent under a formula adopted by the commissioners some years ago. In eight years, the basic rate has gone up 147 percent.
But if the cost increases are supposed to end once the general fund subsidy from tax proceeds is at 15 percent, “that 4 percent will never end.” The subsidy is more than 30 percent this year, which means the utility bills do not capture the full cost of building and operating the county's utilities.
He suggested making sure the system is paid for by the entire county, through property taxes that everyone pays, rather than being funded only by water and sewer users in the unincorporated county through the quarterly bills.
Sounding a familiar theme, the Rev. Clarence Hawkins said he spoke for “people who are afraid they are going to lose their homes and property due to water and sewer bills. ... We want you to be concerned for your citizens. Don't bruise the people who voted you into office.”
While the commissioners said there are no decisions yet, only a legally-required sewer plan amendment, Hawkins said, “We are trying to find out the truth. I hear there is no plan. I hear there is a plan. ... I believe in my mind it's going to happen.”
In response to the next person to testify, Fithian repeated, “We're looking at this project, that's why we're having this public hearing.”
Others questioned the overall expense of quarterly billings.
“I can't afford this stuff,” said one. The commissioners explained the bills as the result of having relatively few users outside the five municipalities.
Asked who would help those on fixed incomes who can't pay ever-increasing bills, Pickrum said, “I do have a proposal, but to be proposed.” He said it would mirror the county's senior citizen property tax rebate.
The Rev. Rueben Freeman, who served a long time on the county's planning commission, said, “The comprehensive plan does not allow this extension. Will you push for approval beyond (the power of) your office and Kent County law?”
Tom Yeager, the county's attorney, replied, “The comp plan is subject to interpretation.”
Whether the comprehensive plan would allow the sewer extension through countryside, Fithian said, “Some people think it doesn't. Some people think it does.”
(In Maryland, the county is legally bound to follow its comprehensive plan, which is its basic policy document.)
Some of the divisions among the three-member commission were evident at one point when a citizen asked “how do you justify raising rates ... by $75?”
Fithian said, “Nobody has decided to raise rates. I don't know where the $75 came from.”
He was told it was reported in the newspaper.
“You will have to talk to the newspaper,” said Pickrum.
At that point, Short said, “It was discussed in this public forum in this very room several months ago in a presentation by McCrone (who did the feasibility study). ... (and now) we've been given a Nov. 1 deadline to decide to go forward.”
“It's too early to say whether rates will go up,” Fithian said.
Pickrum stated, “You're being misled by some folks.”
“That would be me,” replied Short, who has attended several meetings around the county to inform citizens of the project's potential costs, and is on record thinking the county can't afford a multimillion-dollar project given the state of the economy.
Short added a rate increase could be in the vicinity of $33: depending on how far the engineering design has come “the numbers change.”
Others brought up specific shortcomings of sewer systems – such as overflowing toilets in heavy rains – in other parts of the county and wondered why they could not be repaired.
At the beginning of the hearing, Fithian read a series of letters into the record. Along with many attendees, the letters indicated support for the Galena-Georgetown upgrade and, thus, adding it to the plan.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation supported it for clean water reasons, as did the Chester River Association. The Kent County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Development and Economic Development advisory boards supported the amendment and line extension for business reasons.
There was a stack of 160 postcards asking the commissioners to take into account the expense of any new projects and the inability of many county residents to cope with already-sizable water/sewer bills. After Fithian read one of them into the record, the room broke into applause.