They say the only thing as reliable as death is taxes, but when taxes come at an unpredictable time, the results can be near deadly.
"I have cauliflower ear," said Charles County Treasurer Jerome Peuler (R) the other day. "I think we've probably received thousands of phone calls because people are not used to getting a bill that looks like a tax bill out of cycle."
The bill in question is for the new Maryland "flush tax," which is technically not a tax but a $30 fee that generates money for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Restoration Fund. The fee, which is being collected for the first time this year, is earmarked to pay for upgrading the state's 66 major sewage treatment plants to reduce the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus that pollute the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. The money also will be used to upgrade septic systems and fund a cover-crop program that encourages farmers to plant crops that absorb nitrogen.
In total, the new fee, which was seen as a major piece of environmental legislation for the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), is expected to raise $60 million to $70 million a year, said Robert Summers, director of the Water Management Administration for the Maryland Department of the Environment. Owners of "improved property" in the state, those with buildings on them, for example, have to pay the fee. People on public water and sewer systems, such as those operating in La Plata, Indian Head or Waldorf, as well as septic tank users must pay.
"People are coming in here saying, 'I have a two-hole outhouse, I'm not going to pay you.' " Peuler said. "We have a saying around here: 'You pee, you poo, you pay.' The three P's, you know?"
The outcry heard in Charles County, and echoed in several other counties across the state, was caused as much by logistic issues as economic ones. Public utility customers have been paying the fee in regular increments since Jan. 1, but the fee for septic users is charged in one annual $30 payment, effective Oct. 1. Charles property tax bills are due Sept. 30, so rather than charge property owners for something that did not yet exist, Charles County billed septic system users separately. That separate billing set off a torrent of as many as 1,000 calls on some days, Peuler said. Next year the fee is expected to be a part of the regular property tax bill.
Montgomery County was able to delay implementation of the fee until next year, when septic system users will be charged seven quarters' worth, or $52.50, said Tim Firestine, director of the county's Department of Finance. Montgomery's biggest problem, Firestine said, was that the state had no database to help determine who has a septic system.
"There were a lot of complications associated with who they are. To this day we're still working on that," he said. Montgomery is trying to correlate properties to locations with public water service, and then by taking those away, identify the septic users.
"But we don't know whether the process of elimination leaves us with the people who are on well and septic," he said. "I think we'll get the same dramatic increase in calls next year."
After Garrett County officials billed 10,335 well and septic users in October, they were "bombarded" with calls, said Wendy Yoder, director of the county's financial services department. Some had questions about the financial hardship exemption, and others were flatly refusing to pay. Only about a quarter of those billed did not pay -- which Yoder called an encouraging response.
"I thought with the complaints and calls we had, we wouldn't have near 76 percent of people paying," she said.
Other people were upset because runoff in some parts of Western Maryland doesn't go to the Chesapeake Bay but flows into tributaries of the Ohio River.
Supporters of the fee say the first sewage treatment plant to receive state money from the Bays Restoration Fund is in Allegany County, and others in Hagerstown and Cumberland are scheduled for upgrades. Robert Summers of the Maryland Department of the Environment explained Western Maryland's participation:
"Obviously, the priority right now is for the bay cleanup, but as time goes on, these funds will be available throughout the state, including western Garrett County. Secondly, the bay is a huge economic engine for the state of Maryland, and basically the entire economy of the state is benefited by the bay and a healthy bay. As Marylanders, it's probably reasonable for them to have contributed."