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Commissioner Dan Morris (R) told a class of college students on Tuesday that he wants proof that septic systems are damaging the Chesapeake Bay.

His initial comments to them were how to deal with police. “When a cop pulls you over, don’t argue with them on the street. You don’t want anything to escalate out of control,” Morris told a political science class from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who visited with the county commissioners.

Morris then explained what he thought the role of government should be in a democracy. “You should never be afraid of the government,” he said. However, when a tax bill increases, “it’s not my choice. It’s not the American way. Read the Constitution and realize what the government is supposed to do,” he said.

Commissioner Cindy Jones (R) said there are two main pressures on local governments in Maryland — fiscal challenges and state and federal mandates.

“Our revenues are going down” in state and federal grants, she said. The St. Mary’s County budget went from a high of $202.6 million in fiscal 2009 to a budget of $192.4 million this year.

The state government is emphasizing tax hikes this year, Jones said, and state legislators need to trim spending. She cited PlanMaryland, a statewide land use plan, and a proposal to double the $30-a-year tax on septic fees and public sewer as having a “dramatic, dramatic impact to property rights,” and an “untold amount of loss of development potential.” She also named the federal Watershed Implementation Plan for the Chesapeake Bay as a concern.

“What Commissioner Jones just spoke about is ridiculous,” Morris said. He said he questioned the science behind the plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. “What good is it if you don’t prove it? Because of this philosophy it’s costing you money,” he said.

Upgrading the 26,701 septic systems in St. Mary’s County could cost $144 million, county staff estimates.

A student asked about the value of a healthy Chesapeake. A septic tank that is working properly, Morris said, “poses no damage to the bay.”

He also added, “We have more critical area than we need.” The critical area is land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters that has more development restrictions.

St. Mary’s County has 43,754 acres in the critical area, according to the state’s Critical Areas Commission. St. Mary’s has 536 miles of shoreline, according to the Maryland Geological Survey. Dorchester County has the most shoreline in the state with 1,539 miles.

Todd Eberly, assistant professor in the department of political science at St. Mary’s College, said Wednesday a 2007 study by the Chesapeake Bay Program estimated that of all the nitrogen entering the Chesapeake, about 1.4 percent came from septic tanks in Maryland. And counties in Southern Maryland will have to shoulder a large part of the costs to upgrade its septic tanks.

“That said, septics are an outdated and unsustainable technology that were never designed to protect critical areas from nitrogen,” he said. The state should provide the necessary funds to develop public sewer infrastructure to end reliance on septic tanks, otherwise “the state is condemning rural areas to slow growth, inhospitable business climates, and exorbitant housing construction costs — all to the benefit of more developed urban and suburban parts of the state,” he said.

Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) said the Patuxent River used to be clear until sewage treatment plants were built upriver.

Jacquelyn Meiser, director of the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission, said Thursday, “You can’t just tie it to the wastewater treatment plants.” Failing septic systems along the waterfront essentially put raw sewage into the Chesapeake and its tributaries, she said.

Jarboe is serving on his third consecutive term, and was also commissioner from 1994 to 1998. “Term limits are a good thing,” he said. A commissioner can only serve three consecutive terms at a time. Jarboe said term limits should apply in state and federal government.

“I don’t like career politicians,” Morris said.

He said the college students don’t have homes in St. Mary’s County and as a board, “We take care of own people, St. Mary’s County.”

“I don’t know what to make of Commissioner Morris’ comment about ‘taking care of our own.’ Three of the students in my class are from Calvert County, all but two are from Maryland. If they’re not ‘our own’ then I’m not quite sure whose they are,” Eberly said in an email.

jbabcock@somdnews.com