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For two consecutive weeks in January, a few of us sat during the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners’ Tuesday meetings, waiting for a chance to speak during the public comment session, when we could each get five minutes to talk. We spoke on two consecutive weeks, so we could each get 10 minutes to talk about an issue that is extremely important to all consumers of public water and sewer in Calvert County. This is a utility, currently completely financially supported (operations, employee wages, infrastructure, etc.) by the users. Currently, no one on the BOCC occupies a residence serviced by this utility, yet they make all decisions pertaining to operations and raises in rates being paid by the users. We had two major issues to address, and one for which we were actually able to bring information regarding suggested, viable changes. I’ll address that one first.

The majority of those occupying residences serviced by the public water and sewer system are paying both the water usage rate and the very high sewer usage rate for water that is run outside our homes (watering lawns, plants, washing cars, etc.) when, in fact, this water does not go through the sewer system. There has never been any attempt by the county to differentiate between inside and outside water usage. It just charges the sewer usage rate and keeps collecting money for a service that is not being rendered. Some people, even some developers, have installed separate meters to separate the water, but there is currently no requirement for developers to install these meters. The cost to the private home owner, contracting a private plumber to do it, could run into thousands of dollars, according to the acting area supervisor for this utility, plus there would be an additional fee for them to read a second meter.

Why should we, as the users, have to pay thousands of dollars and an extra fee to stop being charged for a service that is not being rendered? So, we brought and submitted several plans being used across the country to alleviate charging customers for sewer services not being rendered. Some use a winter cap to determine summer rates for sewer, not charging sewer rates for gallons of water that exceed the highest number of gallons of water used in the winter, assuming that (in most cases) residents who exceed the highest winter water usage are using outside water and are only charged for those gallons at the water usage rate. Others come up with three separate rates for sewer usage, lowering the rate some for the months of March, April, September and October, and then lowering it again for the months of May through August. In all fairness, the BOCC has agreed to have other options reviewed, but with no promise of adjustments.

The second issue is that all of us occupying residences serviced by public water and sewer are currently paying a high base rate, which applies to everyone, regardless of the size of your home and family — which means seniors in homes occupied by one to two people on fixed incomes, and young singles trying to start ownership in this county, pay the same high base rate as bigger homes with families of four or more. There doesn’t appear to be an answer to this that would be fair to everyone, other than lowering the base rate for all. Apparently, there will never be a way to do that, according to the BOCC, because it has already been agreed that this system must be paid for by the users (who have no vote when rate increases are requested) and because even though when you call the “utility,” it will tell you when there are more users there will be a better opportunity to lower rates, the constant need to replace existing infrastructure will never allow it.

I guess our quandary about all of this is why can’t the county government, within which this “utility” is buried, help this system? The BOCC approved buying a failing golf course several years ago. That golf course is still failing, yet is still owned and supported by county funds. I have golf clubs (I’m a terrible golfer) and have many friends who play because it’s fun. It’s a luxury that our county pays to support, yet there is no additional funding to support the necessity of people to be able to drink water and flush toilets. It just seems crazy to us that our county can put money into a failing golf course, while people are having to choose when they can take a bath or flush their toilets in order to be able to pay their water and sewer bill. This bill, by the way, is not paid specifically to the Water and Sewer Division, or the “Enterprise Fund” as it is sometimes referred to. It is paid to the Calvert County treasurer, just like our taxes, and because it is buried within the county government, it is not subject to state oversight. As a side note, we attended the meeting for the auditors’ report for 2012; the Water and Sewer Division was noted as having made a profit in 2012.

The sewer rates just went up again, folks. The only way to fix either of these issues is for people to get involved and let their voices be heard by the BOCC and anyone else who will listen. As for us, we will be at the meetings when we can to listen, we will speak when we feel they are no longer listening or concerned about us and we will be conserving water in any way possible, so we can afford to pay the next big bill, especially in the spring and summer.

Charlotte Montague, Prince Frederick