Restoration Funding Drop Worries Official

SNOW HILL — One Worcester County Commissioner called out an area newspaper in a public meeting this on what he deems a misleading article on the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley referenced an editorial in The Daily Times during a commission meeting Tuesday. The editorial praised the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) for the $355,000 granted to Wicomico County this year for restoration projects. The money will be used to replace failing septic systems in areas that have a critical impact on the Chesapeake Bay.

While Shockley acknowledged the goal of the program is a good one, he criticized the positive spin on what he considers a negative trend.

“Three years ago, there was five times more money [in the Restoration Fund],” said Shockley. “It [the editorial] completely leaves blank that they’ve cut funding by 80 percent.”

The restoration program affects many counties in Maryland, including Worcester and nearby Somerset. Shockley revealed that the $355,000 Wicomico received this year is considerably less than what it got when the program began in 2008. He added that Worcester received $1.2 million that first year, but only $241,000 in 2011.

As to where the million dollar difference between now and then went, Shockley’s impression was that the state has been tapping into those resources for other projects.

“They’ve robbed the pot … the state has raided the fund,” he said.

When the program began, explained Shockley, “nobody went without.” Homeowners with septic systems in critical areas could have them replaced with more efficient, environmentally friendly, nitrogen-removing systems with federal aid. However, the tightening of the fund in recent years has forced distributors of grant money to focus on failing systems only.

Bob Mitchell, Administrator of Environmental Programs for Worcester County, confirmed that only failing systems in critical areas are qualifying for funding at the moment.

“We’re just getting enough money to cover the failures,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell pointed out that the failing systems were “public health and environmental issues” and had to be addressed first. While he mentioned that Worcester sometimes gets supplemental funding over the course of the year that can be used toward septic projects, he said that such funding is unpredictable. Mitchell did, however, mention a possible rate increase, which might bring more money to the fund.

Currently, homeowners with septic tanks in Worcester pay $30 a year. That money goes to things like the restoration fund. Mitchell explained that the rate might be doubled in an effort to bring in more resources.

“There are propositions out there to take it to $60,” he said.

According to Mitchell, if that increase happened, there might be adequate funding to start granting aid to people in critical areas who want to voluntarily upgrade to new systems, instead of only those who are failing. However, he didn’t think the increase, if it does happen, will be a silver bullet solution.

“It can’t all be on the backs of the homeowners,” he remarked.

Shockley also held reservations about a rate increase.

“The only reason you [the state] have for raising the fee, is you’ve raided the pot,” he said.

While Shockley isn’t satisfied with where the program is, he said that, when it began in 2008, it was “the right thing to do.” He added that the overall goal of the project is still a good one, but that a lot needs to be done to bring it back to a level near what it was when it started.

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