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The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission is proposing a 8.9 percent hike in its water and sewer charges to start in July based on its increased operating and construction budget, the latest in a series of rate hikes since 2007.

On Tuesday, the St. Mary’s County commissioners reviewed MetCom’s proposed construction plans and Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) noted that project estimates had changed considerably in the span of just one year.

“Your estimates are off — light years,” Morgan said. “The numbers are still Swiss cheese and man in the moon.”

The commissioners have authority over MetCom’s construction budget, which affects the monthly bills for those using public water and sewer. Residential rates for those on water and sewer are $73.44 a month, and are proposed to go to $79.97 after July 1. MetCom is holding a public hearing on the fee hike on May 6 beginning at 6:30 p.m. at its California office.

MetCom water and sewer rates were $55.08 a month in October 2007 and have gone up every year since.

Estimates made last year to replace the water lines for the Town Creek and Esperanza Farms neighborhoods in Lexington Park were off by millions of dollars, Morgan said. The estimate last year for Town Creek was $1.2 million. “What’s Town Creek looking at: $5 million, $10 million?” he asked.

The project is now estimated at $6 million, said David Elberti, chief engineer of MetCom. Engineering estimates were updated, he said. “Our commissioners have been pointing this out also,” he said.

The estimates to replace the water lines in Esperanza Farms went from just more than $1 million last year to an updated estimate of $4 million.

A water tank for the Bay Ridge neighborhood in Great Mills went from $1.5 million last year to $5.5 million this year, Morgan said. He also noted an additional $3 million increase to the $36 million upgrade for the sewage treatment plant in Lexington Park. “It raises little red flags in my mind,” Morgan said.

“It’s very troubling the percentages are going up this high,” said Commission President Jack Russell (D). “Everybody’s got to look at people paying the bills.”

The MetCom board is responsible for setting the customer rates, but the county commissioners hear about it, Morgan said.

The better estimates that can be generated, the better decisions can be made for MetCom customer rates and the better explanations can be made for increases, said Commissioner Cindy Jones (R).

The further a project is away, the less accurate an estimate will be, said Dan Ichniowski, MetCom director. “Those estimates out further are going to be looking into a crystal ball.”

MetCom’s proposed construction budget for fiscal 2014 is $7.6 million for water projects and $8.5 million for sewer projects. The cost burden is spread out to all MetCom customers. Last year, there were about 14,000 customers on water and nearly 12,000 customers on public sewer.

Asked how many new customers were brought on during the last year, MetCom staff said “a couple hundred.”

Costs are increasing faster than the number of new customers, Morgan said.

“We’ve been layering on a lot of new debt and it’s going to be awhile for that debt to fall off, said Becky Shick, MetCom financial officer.

“Most of what we’re doing right now is to replace the existing system,” Ichniowski said.

“I’ve heard over and over again the Lexington Park system is leaking raw sewage or has the potential to leak raw sewage,” said Commissioner Dan Morris (R).

“That’s an older system where we’ve been adding to it year after year,” section by section, Ichniowski said. “Where we are experiencing overflows is because of inflow and infiltration, where you have heavy rains, water may get into the system,” he said.

The commissioners are scheduled to approve the MetCom construction plans on June 11.

jbabcock@somdnews.com