Activist Says Utilities Department Has 'Something To Hide'

Citizens Group Calls For Investigation Of Cash Surpluses And Fees

March 01, 1992|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

A Glen Burnie Republican activist who last week accused the county utilities department of "intentionally misleading the public" has called for an investigation of the agency.

Michael Serabian, founder of Citizens Against Utility Taxes, said that, based on his own study of utility records and customers' bills, he believes public water and sewer customers are being ripped off.

In a press release issued for CAUT late last week, Serabian called for a "complete investigation," an independent audit to locate cashsurpluses from depreciation and special fees, and release of currentresumes and college transcripts for Director of Utilities Thomas Neel and Deputy Director John Zohlen.

"They may not be qualified for their jobs, in violation of county law," Serabian's press release said.

The release also accused Neel and Zohlen of "having something to hide," "conveying incomplete, incorrect and confusing information,"and having "a hostile, negative attitude toward the democratic process."

"I don't understand his motivation," said Zohlen. "Those are some pretty strong words. I wish he'd mentioned some specific instances we could discuss."

Serabian said he has not talked to Zohlen, Neel or County Executive Robert R. Neall about his concerns. "We're getting close to that," he said.

The issues he raised include:

* Stripping the utility director of the power to set water and sewer rates.

The County Council used to set rates, but transferred that authority to the director in 1988. The director may raise both water and sewer rates by 5 percent annually.

In the past, the council was reluctant to increase rates, for political reasons.

Rate increaseshave occurred since 1988 to make up for an ever-dwindling supply of federal money for utilities projects and to meet new demands for better water quality and stricter environmental standards, utilities officials said.

* The depreciation account. Users now pay for depreciation through water and sewer fees. The money is used throughout the year for repairs to extend the life water pipes, sewer mains and otherinfrastructure, Zohlen said.

Serabian and other CAUT members believe depreciation should be set aside as a cash surplus to replace infrastructure. Maintenance repairs should be a separate line item in the operating budget, they say.

Under the current system, said Daniel Klosterman, a former assistant county auditor, customers could be taxed three times for the same service -- once when the water or sewerpipes are laid, again through depreciation fees, and again when the infrastructure is replaced.

* Sewer fees. Sewer fees are linked towater usage.

That's unfair, Serabian says. "To assume every drop you pull into your house goes down the toilet or into your sink overstates consumption. That's a hidden tax."

Utilities officials say it's an industrywide practice to tie sewer charges to water use, sincethere is no technology for measuring wastewater use.

* Environmental fees and other surcharges. CAUT believes these should be flat fees, rather than linked to the water and sewer rate.

* Public hearings on utilities issues. CAUT says citizens don't have enough say in the rate-setting process, though rate increases are a part of the annual budget process, and the utilities department holds informational meetings to explain its increases.

The utilities department is audited annually by the county auditor and an independent firm, but officials would not object to a CAUT investigation as long as CAUT paid for it, Zohlen said.

"I'm not paying for it," Serabian said. "We'll see."

CAUT, founded last fall, has about 50 members, said Serabian, an unsuccessful 1990 candidate for County Council.

Klosterman, who also failed in a 1990 bid for council, said most of the unrest over utilities is centered in North County, where infrastructure is deteriorating.

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