HAMPSTEAD — The years of unchanging rates for the nearly 5,100 water and sewer customers of the county's two treatment plants are over.
"The chances are, the costs will continue to go up," County Comptroller Eugene Curfman said during a sparsely attended 90-minute information sessionat North Carroll High School.
While the county commissioners won't officially adopt new water and sewer rates for customers here and in the southern part of the county until after two public hearings next month, the amount of that increase is projected to be substantial.
In Hampstead, which has a municipal system, the projected annual sewer bill for the system's 1,300 users would increase 85 percent, rising from $148 to $274, effective July 1.
For South Carroll's Freedom District -- which serves 3,640 homes and businesses -- sewer rates would increase by the same amount as for Hampstead, but would be augmented by a $61.50 annual fee until the year 2012.
Water rates in Freedom would jump from an annual average of $90 to more than $205 under the proposed rates.
Friday night's meeting was hardly the place to be in the North Carroll area. Fewer than 20 people sat among 190 chairs. But those that were there bitterly opposed the proposed rate increase.
"Raising rates by 85 percent at one time is unconscionable," said Hampstead Mayor Clinton Becker.
The reasons Curfman gave for the sudden increase in rates had to do with simple business. For most of the system's 20-yearhistory, it has been operating at a loss that was covered by a hook-up charge that is supposed to go to new sewage plant construction.
The last rate increase was in 1984, and that increase lasted until only 1986, when the commissioners cut rates.
The new rates would allow the system to operate at a break-even level, without having to use money collected in hook-up fees.
The hook-up fees in Hampstead are slated to drop by more than 10 percent, from $1,275 per new home to $1,145. In the Freedom area, however, the hookup for sewage servicewill jump 65 percent, from $3,098 to $5,112. Water hook-up fees there would increase three-fold, increasing from $710 to $2,169.
That the commissioners have allowed the system to operate this way was unbelieveable to most in the audience.
"It took you years to get intothis situation," said Megan Rock, a Robert's Field resident. "I think it would be fair if you take two or three years to get us out of it."
Curfman said the rate increase could be modified -- perhaps phased-in over a period of years -- if the commissioners choose to do so.
Curfman said regardless of what form a rate increase takes, it is necessary.
Since 1982, the system has amassed annual deficits, covered by hook-up fee money. Cumulatively, the deficits add up to more than $5 million.
"If this increase doesn't go through, we've still got to continue to use the connection fees to cover operating expenses," Curfman said.
"And if we do that, the system's bankrupt in five years," he said. "I can't sit here and watch this system go downthe tubes."
Another information meeting is set for Tuesday, April7, in Eldersburg. The public hearings are scheduled for April 22 in Hampstead and April 29 in Eldersburg.