Flowing downhill

November 27, 2005

People tend to hold less disdain for fees than for taxes in general. It's not hard to understand why. Paying a fee - to get a driver's license, for instance - often feels like an equitable transaction. You know you're getting a return on investment. But user fees don't always allow for such tidy bargains. And that's causing problems in Maryland's westernmost county, where taxpayers are in veritable revolt over Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s "flush tax."

The $30 annual fee was approved last year as a means to upgrade Maryland's wastewater treatment plants and failing septic systems. The goal is to significantly lower the excessive amount of nitrogen and phosphorus sewer systems pour into the Chesapeake Bay.

But the flush tax is not sitting well in Garrett County simply because most residents are not "users" of the Chesapeake in the traditional sense. So they are complaining to their county commissioners - loudly. Most of the county doesn't drain into the Bay (only a third is within the Potomac's watershed) and some residents feel no more attachment to the Bay than a Baltimorean might to Garrett's Swallow Falls. On Oct. 1, Garrett County's 10,335 septic users were billed for their share of the tax. As of this week -- nearly a month after the bills were due - fewer than half have actually paid it.

It's regrettable that so many people are so riled by such a modest fee that carries so much potential public benefit. It's particularly galling for people in Garrett County to reject such a program when state taxpayers have invested so much in their county in recent years. In 1999, the state spent $7.8 million to buy Deep Creek Lake and much more to promote tourism, build roads and create new jobs there. As a direct result, Garrett's unemployment rate has dipped to a record low. And it's unlikely the county's 30,000 residents could have accomplished this on their own dime.

A case can be made that Garrett County does, indeed, benefit directly from the flush tax. Sewer systems there will eventually be eligible for state-funded upgrades (even those that don't drain into a Bay tributary). But Western Maryland residents ought to realize their indirect benefits, too. Reviving the nation's largest estuary is good for Maryland, for the region, and for the country. And it's good for the people who live in places like Oakland, McHenry and Friendsville, too.

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