Proposed rate changes that could triple or quadruple the water and sewer bills for some Calvert County communities brought out only about 20 residents Tuesday night for the first of two public hearings on the issue.
Almost all of those at Huntingtown High School for the hearing had complaints about the increases.
"All I see here are ill-conceived quick fixes to meet some obscure political goals," said Katherine Hughes of Prince Frederick. She said she worried for disabled and senior citizens on fixed incomes, who might not be able to pay the new water rates.
Most who spoke also expressed outrage at one rate plan that would favor the water system in Solomons.
"I call this option the creation of the kingdom of Solomons," said Les Hubbard of Prince Frederick. "They shall stand alone forever because of a promise made 20 years ago that the system would never be changed."
County officials hope the two public hearings -- the latest step in a long process that has included similar forums, work sessions and presentations -- will help them settle a thorny issue that has troubled them for more than a year and a half. A second hearing will be held Dec. 6 at the St. Leonard Volunteer Fire Department, and the county commissioners plan to vote on the proposal in January.
Over the years, about 25 water and sewer systems have been formed in the county -- each serving different town centers or major developments and each with its own rates and rules.
Some have not changed their rates in decades, even as operation and maintenance costs soared -- the Shores of Calvert system, for example, has not increased rates since 1981. And the inconsistent rates have created financial problems for the county.
"It's a problem that has festered over many years because it hasn't been addressed," said Commissioner Gerald W. Clark (R-Lusby).
Rate increases are needed because the county's water and sewer fund, which finances the systems, has accumulated about $2.4 million in operating losses in the past two fiscal years, said Terry L. Shannon, the county's director of administration and finance.
"The water and sewer fund is supposed to be a self-sufficient fund," Shannon said. "We need to be bringing in enough revenue to pay the bills."
The county has borrowed from reserve funds to pay for the losses, but "eventually, in the short-term, we're going to run out of reserves," Shannon said.
County officials have been trying to solve the problem since 2004 and have held eight public meetings, five public hearings and several work sessions. At least five new ways to adjust the rates have been proposed, many of them shot down in earlier meetings.
"There have been lots of comments from people about how confusing all the options are," said Commissioner Susan Shaw (R-Huntingtown). "That may be part of the problem -- frustration."
At Tuesday's public hearing, officials presented the latest options -- one proposal that has been considered since the first meetings last year and a new approach devised by county staff members based on public input in recent hearings.
The system-based approach, which county officials have kept on the table throughout the process, would keep each of the systems separate and adjust the rates in each system to cover all of the costs of each system. The political advantage of this approach is that in the patchwork of systems, residents in one system won't be subsidizing expenses in another.
The new approach, called base-plus-variable rate, would establish a countywide rate. The advantage to this approach is that residents are charged in part by the amount of water they use (so much for each 1,000 gallons consumed) -- a key point that residents had pushed for during earlier public discussions.
Many systems charge residences for a minimum use of 10,000 or 15,000 gallons, even if some households use much less. Under the new proposal, residents would pay a common base rate and then pay another part of the fee that would be determined by how many thousands of gallons used.
The effect of the new approach would vary from system to system. For example, users of the Dares Beach system would see their quarterly water and sewer rates drop from $291.49 for a 15,000-gallon minimum to $228.83 after a gradual change in rates over seven years. But residents on the Solomons system would see their rates almost quadruple from $53.25 for 12,000 gallons to $212.84 over that same period.
However, the public outcry by Solomons residents has added several wrinkles to the base-plus-variable approach.
Many of the early public hearings were dominated by Solomons residents, who want the county to keep their system separate. At a meeting in January, 70 residents who use the Solomons system turned out to argue their case.
"The Solomons system was put in place, maintained and paid for" by the Solomons users, said Clark, who added that he has not decided which option he favors. "The Solomons people are concerned because under the new proposal they would go up substantially."
After those initial public hearings, the county commissioners asked county staff members to work up the new base-plus-variable approach with the additional option of giving the Solomons rates a longer time to phase into the higher charges or keeping the Solomons system separate from the countywide base and variable rates.
After Tuesday night's hearing, Shaw said she would not support any option that treated Solomons differently from other systems.
"Keeping it separate is not good for anybody," she said. "If they are a stand-alone system, they would also be bearing all the financial risk."