ANNAPOLIS- Some Maryland homeowners may be jolted by an unpleasant surprise when they open their property tax bills next year.
Instead of being billed for one year’s worth of the state’s new “flush tax,” homeowners with septic tanks – including about 30,000 in Anne Arundel County – will be billed $52.50, instead of the $30 a year they might have anticipated.
The flush tax, formally known as the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Restoration Fund, is intended to support efforts to clean up the state’s waterways.
But while the goal of the program might be simple, implementing it has not been. It’s a state program, but Maryland delegated responsibility for collecting the fee to Baltimore City and the state’s 23 counties. Several counties – including Anne Arundel – were not ready, and their delays mean that homeowners will have to pay double to catch up.
“There are going to be some people who aren’t happy,” said Kerry A. Topovski, Anne Arundel County’s director of environmental health.
Property owners who are tied to municipal water or sewer systems will not feel the impact of the delay in collections. They have already been paying $2.50 tacked onto their monthly water utility bills. For septic owners, however, the fee is $30 a year and the various counties decided how to collect it. In most cases it will be added to the property tax bill. The wastewater charge went into effect in January, but collections for the septic system fee did not begin until last month.
Jay Prager, deputy program manager in the Maryland Department of the Environment’s wastewater treatment permits division, said the delays were not surprising, given the variation in the records each county keeps on its septic users, which number some 420,000 across the state.
Some counties had databases already; others had to put together the information from other sources, Prager said. Availability of data and personnel were both factors. “We would have liked to have billed by July, but not every county was ready.”
Because they had to build their databases of septic users from scratch in many cases, Prager said, “the counties that took longer may actually be more accurate.”
Before the flush tax was created, Anne Arundel did not have a complete inventory of its septic users, Topovski said. There are some very old homes in the county, she said, and septic systems can date back to the 1900s.
Her office was able to update its list of septic users by comparing different databases and by visiting many of the properties in person.
Prager said his agency has worked with the counties from the beginning, as well as other state agencies, to pull together the data needed to send out bills. “We were really pleasantly surprised by the amount of effort the other agencies put in.”
Some county officials said they were disappointed by the support from the state. Pamela Howard, Cecil County’s treasurer, called the process “a nightmare.”
Like Topovski, she said the hardest thing was determining who had a septic system. Trailer parks and campgrounds posed the biggest challenges. Her county will begin collecting the fee in December, a prorated $22.50 covering the length of time the law has been in effect. In July they will be billed again for the full $30.
Maryland’s Department of the Environment expects the program to generate an estimated $65 million per year from people with sewer and water and $12.6 million from septic system users. The money collected from property owners served by municipal water systems will be used to upgrade wastewater treatment plants. The revenue from septic tank users will be used to upgrade or replace failing septic systems and to provide financial assistance to farmers to help plant cover crops to prevent nutrient runoff.
Overall, the goal is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus discharge, which contributes to the “dead zone” in the Chesapeake Bay. It’s that benefit that Topovski said she plans to point out to those who contact her office to complain about the fee, but she knows that will not be enough to placate everyone, especially those whose property tax bills are a little bigger than they expected. –