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 MetComm: Neither Fish nor Fowl

     By the 1950s entrepreneurs and locals were successfully parlaying the U.S. Navy’s continued investment in the Patuxent River Naval Air Station into a thriving community. But by the middle of that decade Lexington Park developers faced a show-stopping problem, the naval base could no longer accommodate the mounting sewage.

      In 1950 fewer than 30,000 people lived in St. Mary’s County, by 1960 it would be nearly 40,000, primarily due to growth in the Lexington Park area. The Navy, operating its own plant was also helping local private systems dispose of its sewage.
But by the middle of the decade, according to then-state senator J. Frank Raley, neither system could handle the loads or meet increasingly stringent standards.

     Nor could the five other sewage treatment plants in St. Mary’s County.

     All six sewage treatment plants in St. Mary’s County were privately owned. (Not the Navy’s, the seventh plant.) Their treatment methods and effectiveness varied. All discharged into a tidal waterway – Wicomico, St. Mary’s, Potomac, Patuxent rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

     The Navy was pushing to upgrade and close their system to the public, according Raley, when Lexington Park businessmen – including Jack Daugherty, Cato Merchant, Tom Waring and Robert Gabrelcik – began discussing creation of a sanitary district.
Raley crafted a bill that would create a corporation empowered to consolidate and expand public water and sewer systems, but it failed to win the support of the St. Mary’s County Board of Commissioners.

     Raley’s second bill successfully created the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission (MetComm) in 1957 as a stand-alone corporation outside of county government. A different board of county commissioners supported the 1957 bill, Raley said, even though the second bill did not require the board of commissioners’ approval.

     Despite that local endorsement, Raley said voters did not support a public water and sewer sanitary district, fearing its cost. An attempt to force the issue to referendum failed. Raley believes, had a referendum been held, it would have killed the bill. But, Raley said, the opposition was the result of misinformation. In neither bill did Raley propose county funding of the water and sewer utility.

    Raley crafted the bill based upon other counties’ sanitary districts, except that unlike the majority of other counties, St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission did not come under the jurisdiction of the county government. (Nor does the Washington Suburban Sanitation District, which is operated by a commission appointed by both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.)
Raley’s bill anticipated the St. Mary’s Metropolitan Commission to operate without county funds. Except for a few small exceptions (such as test wells or small satellite systems) the Metropolitan Commission has never received county funds.
Federal and state grants, property developers and service and benefit fees continue to fund MetComm operations and capital expansions.

    When Raley’s bill passed in 1957 thousands of sewage treatment facilities across the U.S. were also discharging into the nation’s waters. Sewage treatment was among the early targets of the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1948. Concentration on removing waste and its treatment hazards from the nation’s waters remained a primary focus of the law for more than two decades.

    Enforcement of water standards transferred to the states in 1970 when the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency was created and an array of federal environmental safety and health programs were corralled under its umbrella.
When the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission began service in 1964 federal funding from the Clean Water initiative flowed into St. Mary’s and similar communities. Federal money was used to upgrade and sometimes expand sewage disposal facilities in St. Mary’s City, Point Lookout, Piney Point, Wicomico Shores, Leonardtown, St. Clements Shores, Pine Hill Run and elsewhere.

    It’s relevant to note that the intent of the federal funds was not, per se, to upgrade or expand sewage treatment facilities. The law’s stated goal was to make all the waters of the nation “fishable” and “swimable” by 1985.

    As discharge from sewage treatment plants was being corralled by environmental laws, development emerged as another significant threat to the health of the waterways. Paradoxically, the upgrading of sewage systems serving waterfront housing made the Maryland shoreline a development target in the 1990s.

   The state’s investment in local planning was intensified in the mid-1980s when Maryland passed one of the strongest state-level zoning laws in the nation by creating the   Chesapeake Bay Critical Area to regulate shoreline building. The critical areas law restricts development along Maryland’s tidal shore.

    By the 1990s Maryland was also promoting local land-use strategies that clustered new development around existing infrastructure.

    St. Mary’s County has 400 miles of shoreline, much of it a magnet for development. With the advent of cluster-growth planning strategies, waterfront communities with public sewer became not merely magnets but development targets.

     In addition to minimal control over divergent state planning strategies, St. Mary’s County government has minimal control over its jurisdiction’s primary development conduit, the county’s public water and sewer systems.
      The stand-alone corporation, St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission, exists without government operating oversight.
     In 1974 Maryland required jurisdictions to complete a comprehensive water and sewer plan in conjunction with developing land use plans and zoning ordinances. For most counties these plans are both created and administered by government agencies based upon the priorities set by government policies and investments.
     The water and sewer map of St. Mary’s County, according to building and zoning officials, established service districts unrealistically large and timelines that were so optimistic as to resemble “Fantasy Island,” according to Tom Russell who served with the environmental health department in St. Mary’s County from 1974 until 1999 and then worked for a few years with MetComm. “Some exist today without water and sewer,” he said of the 35-year-old boundaries of the sanitary districts in the original map. “It won’t happen,” he said of public systems reaching the sanitary districts within the plan’s set timetables.

     St. Mary’s original 10 sanitary districts are still intact in the map. There remained five stand-alone sewer treatment systems into the 1980s. The Clean Water funding, Russell said, was used in St. Mary’s County to fix what was broken with the five stand-alone treatment plants and in some cases to consolidate facilities via miles of pipelines to the Lexington Park facility at Pine Hill Run south of the Navy base. Most sewage is now pumped to Pine Hill Run, the largest treatment facility in St. Mary’s County.

     There are still small and varied systems around the county also operated by MetComm including a closed system at Wicomico Shores and an elaborate mound system serving part of Ridge. 

     From its inception MetComm relied upon developers to expand the existing sewer systems. MetComm was given the system to operate and developers recapped their capital costs from property sales.

     The size of the district and optimism of the growth timetable encouraged developers to expand all of the sewer systems. This broadened the development opportunities across the county since expansion was only affordable for areas abutting already existing sewer systems.

     County government is responsible for updating the water and sewer map and is then required to accept sewer plans proposed within the map’s sanitary districts and timetable. The unrealistic timelines for future service and too large of sanitation districts have permitted sewer systems in areas that other county land-use policies do not identify as growth priorities or targets.

     The county has never invested in construction of a large-scale public water or sewage system.
     The Metropolitan Commission has the power to invest in expansion but never has, instead using developer funding of grant funding to do that. The legislation permits St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission to issue bonds and charge benefit assessment fees to pay those bonds back. But the sanitary district has never used its authority in that way. The sewer company has issued bonds for repairs and upgrades but continues the tradition of requiring developer initiation of new systems and expansions.
     St. Mary’s County Commissioners must endorse MetComm bond issues since the full faith and credit of the county is pledged. But the bond approval can be largely pro forma since MetComm pays the loans back out of user fees not county funds or new taxes.

     “MetComm has been a huge success,” Raley states, pointing to its 50-year history without any major environmental, legal or financial misappropriations.
     But by the late 1990s the loss of federal Clean Water funding left MetComm without a source of income for repairs or upgrades of aging systems. In 2006 this was remedied by state law, the way all MetComm policy changes have to be made.

     Among the 21 amendments added to the 44-year-old law, the state legislature in 2006 gave MetComm the authority to collect fees for future repairs of existing systems. This fairly standard utility proviso is typically called a “sinking fund.”

     The law creating MetComm gives it the power to condemn property the same as the government, issue bonds and levies, same as the government and even the power to place a lien upon properties with overdue sewer or water bills. The levies and liens are described in the original legislation and through amendments. They do not require approval from county government. If bills are not paid MetComm can take the property in the same manner local government can take property if property taxes are not paid.
The county commissioners appoint the seven-member St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission based upon residency qualifications stated in the law and approve new positions. The seven volunteers administer the county’s public water and sewage systems except in Leonardtown.

     The town council oversees operation of the Leonardtown public sewer system.

Summary Sketch of MetComm authority & responsibilities:

•    St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission was created by state law in 1957 and began providing service in 1964.

•    St. Mary’s County Commissioners (BCC) appoint the seven-member St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission based solely upon residency qualifications. Except for the creation of new positions, the Metropolitan Commissioners have complete authority over the administration of the county’s public water and sewage treatment systems, excluding Leonardtown. Twenty-seven public water systems served 41,000 residents and four sewer treatment plants served 36,000 residents in 2005.

•    State law also gives these seven community members the authority to levy taxes, condemn property and place a lien against property.

•    The BCC has a vote to endorse bond issues on behalf of MetComm and a presumptive vote on new systems and expansions of future sewer and water service. These are the only direct government approvals required for St. Mary’s public water or sewer line.

•    MetComm bonds enjoy the full faith and credit of St. Mary’s County taxpayers.

•    Neither citizens nor customers hold consumer control over MetComm policies, rates or expansion.

•    Appeals of MetComm decisions go to Circuit Court, but for the most part Maryland citizens do not have standing to protest the placement of or charges for public sewer. Maryland makes no provision for individuals to protest the laying of sewer lines across their property.

•    The unusual legislative nature of St. Mary’s MetComm requires policy changes from the hugely significant down to the trivial be passed by the Maryland General Assembly. There are no legislative requirements placed on MetComm for public input on policy adoption procedures. Through 2008, during its 44 operational years, the legislature has passed 21 amendments to MetComm enabling 1957 legislation.

•    St. Mary’s County’s first Comprehensive Water & Sewer Plan was written in 1974 and defined 10 separate Sanitary Districts based upon the location of existing pubic waters systems and sewage treatment plants.

•    The multiple districts proved administratively unwieldy and produced inequitable fees to consumers who up until 1993 were forced to connect if the line abutted their property.  The current status of amendments to MetComm’s enabling legislation now permit abutting property owners with functioning waste disposal systems to remain unconnected until their current systems fail. Regardless of connection status,  MetComm can collect fees from properties abutting the line based upon the potential benefit the property derives from the availability of the utility.

•    User fees were made uniform throughout the system in 2006. Prior to this neighborhoods paid vastly different user and benefit amounts for sewer service. The fee calculations were determined based upon how much grant funding bought down the cost of the various pieces of the system. It was possible for neighbors to have different pricing, for example, if a grant failed to cover the entire neighborhood.

•    Sewer fees varied from more than $100 a month to less than $20.

•    The same 2006 legislation making all fees uniform allowed MetComm, for the first time, to collect fees directly earmarked for capital repairs, upkeep and upgrades.

•    The original intent of the legislation envisioned a self-regulating corporation capable of floating county-backed revenue bonds to build, upgrade and expand existing water and sewage disposal facilities. Each taxing district/sanitary district would pay for the cost of its system and service. But this never happened. Instead of revenue bonds, the driving funding source for St. Mary’s County sewer network was the federal Clean Water Act of 1948. CWA made available through the 1970s millions of dollars to upgrade sewage treatment facilities discharging into the nation’s waters. All seven sewage treatment facilities in St. Mary’s county discharged into tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

•    MetComm could enhance these grant funds using the “remote area” provision in its enabling legislation. That provision permitted private applicants to contribute money to expand systems to abutting properties. Until 1993 all properties located along the privately funded line between the remote location and the existing service area were mandated to connect to the line, except when the federal government, at the time of grant funding, required growth-control limitations to the relevant sewage system.