A Glen Burnie Republican activist has started a movement to strip the county's director of utilities of the authority to set water and sewer rate increases.
Michael Serabian, an unsuccessful 1990 candidate for County Council, recently created Citizens Against Utility Taxes (CAUT) to help citizens "take control and speak out against the silent tax."
The group -- about a dozen North County residents -- complains that taxpayers have no say in the rate-setting process because the utilities director is not elected. CAUT wants the County Council to reclaim responsibility for setting utilities rates, a duty it transferred to the utilities director in 1988.
"This is a public policy decision," Serabian said. "Either the County Council should vote on the increase, or the people should vote on it (via a ballot question). By giving the decision to someone who's non-elected in the executive branch, we are no different in the way we run our utilities than Communistcountries."
Serabian said his bill for water and sewer services jumped from $41.15 in November 1988 to $101.49 this month.
Other fees are attached to the water and sewer charges, he said, and also rise in proportion to the rate increase.
"The people own this utility, and in a democracy we ought to have a vote on a rate increase. EvenBG&E doesn't give us this much trouble," Serabian said.
Director of Utilities Thomas Neel levied his most recent water and sewer rate increase in May, when he raised both by the maximum 5 percent. The July 1 change brought the water rate to $1.38 per 1,000 gallons, up from $1.31; and increased the sewer rate to $2.57 per 1,000 gallons, up from $2.45.
The increase will cost the average homeowner about $20a year, said department spokesman Jody Vollmar.
"Our expenses keep going up," Vollmar said. "We attempt to increase (the rates) in small increments because we feel it's easier for people to adjust to a small increase on a regular basis than a large increase on an irregular basis. Inflation affects us as well as the homeowner."
Federal money for utilities projects has dried up as demands for better water quality and stricter environmental standards have multiplied.
CAUTclaims county government "has set up a system to allow for rate increases without clear explanation." However, rate increases are a part of the annual budget approval process, which is subject to public hearing. And the utilities department holds informational meetings to explain its rate increases.
"No one ever shows up," said Councilman George Bachman, D-Linthicum, who favors returning power to levy rate increases to the council.
During the early 1980s, the Lighthizer administration asked for rate-setting authority because the council, for obvious political reasons, continually deferred rate increases. This caused a shortfall in the water and sewer fund that threatened thecounty's bond rating and allowed pumping stations and equipment to deteriorate. Major sewage spills were frequent through the 1970s and early 1980s.
The council passed legislation, at the request of the Lighthizer administration, giving the director the right to set ratesin 1988. The director could raise water and sewer rates by the same percentage as the cost-of-living raise negotiated for blue-collar andclerical employees.
Last fall, the council amended the law, taking away the link to employees' salaries. Instead, the council allowed the utilities director to raise water and sewer rates by up to 5 percent each.
CAUT has distributed about 350 fliers to raise interest in the utility rate increase issue, Serabian said. Council members were given a copy at last Wednesday's redistricting hearing in Annapolis.
Bachman said he would like to sponsor legislation to take away the director's power, but doubts if the measure would pass. "I get lukewarm answers about it all the time," he said.