Bill On Utility Fees 'Gutted,' Sponsor Sophocleus Says| County Council Passes Bill Over His 1 Dissenting Vote

September 19, 1990|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff writer

A bill designed to hold down water and sewer rates by stripping the county utilities director of his power to set the fees has been "gutted" by the County Council, says the bill's sponsor, Theodore J. Sophocleus.

Sophocleus, a Linthicum Democrat and his party's nominee for county executive, cast the sole dissenting vote when the council approved the bill, 6-1, Monday night.

He complained that amendments narrowly approved by fellow council members two weeks ago still allow arbitrary rate-setting, with little public accountability.

"It's not what I intended when I introduced the bill," Sophocleus said. "The way it was amended gutted it, so I'm voting against the bill."

Sophocleus' original bill would have repealed a 1988 law that allows the utilities director to raise rates by the same percentage as the cost-of-living increases negotiated by blue-collar and clerical utilities employees.

Under the amended version, the utilities director can continue to raise rates up to 5 percent a year without council approval. But the increases will no longer be tied to pay raises.

Representatives of several labor unions representing county employees had lobbied heavily against tying unpopular utility rate increases to their raises, and said the current process denies the public any say in rates.

County administration officials, however, argued in favor of continuing to link the rates to pay increases because salaries account for half the utilities budget.

Also, administration officials said, regular, gradual increases in water and sewer rates are necessary to cover rising maintenance and personnel service expenses.

Before the 1988 law, council members had been reluctant to approve increases in the face of widespread public opposition.

A resulting shortfall in the water and sewer budget threatened the county's bond rating and led to deterioration of pumping stations and other equipment, administration officials say.

Water and sewer rates rose 5 percent, the same amount as employee pay raises, for the budget year beginning July 1.

The average county household on public water and sewer now pays about $386 a year, up about $18 from the previous year.

In other action Monday night:

* The council approved a bill sponsored by Councilman David G. Boschert, D-Crownsville, limiting the monthly tax on rental space for mobile home owners to $32 a month.

On top of the monthly rent they pay for lots, mobile home owners also must pay 15 percent of that amount in taxes to the county.

Mobile home park owners, who also must pay taxes on their land, had joined residents in calling that situation an unfair and discriminatory form of double taxation.

* Sophocleus introduced bills offering property tax relief to elderly or disabled homeowners and those living in the noisiest areas surrounding Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Under one bill, homeowners who are 65 and over or permanently disabled and earn $30,000 a year or less could defer county property tax payments.

The tax tab and 12 percent interest would have to be repaid when homeowners die or when their home is sold.

The other bill would halve property taxes on up to $85,000 of a home's value for residents who endure an average of 75 decibels of airplane noise a day.

The homeowners deserve the break because BWI noise reduces property values, Sophocleus said.

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