SNOW HILL — After the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) denied Worcester County’s request for a Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) fee exemption, the County Commission agreed this week it has no choice but to bill Ocean Pines residents for the time that would have been exempted. However, the commissioners promised to hold the money collected in escrow in the hopes that an appeal to state officials will see MDE’s denial overturned.
“It is very unfair,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “I think we need to appeal it to whomever we can.”
During the winter of 2011, specifically January and February, uncommonly low temperatures caused the Ocean Pines Sanitary Service Area to exceed “[the] threshold for average total nitrogen for the year,” according to a report from Enterprise Fund Controller Jenifer Savage.
Because the threshold was broken, MDE is requiring Ocean Pines to pay the BRF fee for four quarters. Savage recommended to start billing from January, with the BRF fee only $2.50 per month for January through June. On July 1, the rate increases to $5 a month, which Savage said would be the new rate until the fee requirements are satisfied. All in all, the bill comes to $45 for all four quarters.
“It’s all about the money,” said Commission President Bud Church.
“I think it’s absolutely outrageous,” added Boggs.
According to Boggs, the 3.0 mg/l ceiling for total nitrogen allowed to avoid a BRF fee was unrealistic during the 2011 winter, when unusually cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time wreaked havoc with Sanitary Service’s ability to regulate the element.
“It is unfair. It is undoable,” said Boggs. “It is undoable in a winter such as we had in 2011.”
Savage noted that Worcester faced a similar situation in 2007 and was able to coax the MDE into granting an exemption. This time around, however, the state took a harder line.
“They flat out denied our exemption,” said Savage. “I don’t know what other argument, at this point, we could make.”
Despite the ruling, the commission agreed unanimously that an appeal should be lodged.
“I don’t think that we should assume we’re wrong … we need to advise our state representatives,” said Boggs.
“I agree that we should fight this to the end,” said Church.
However, Church pointed out that if the county’s appeal eventually failed and no money was collected, it would be forced to hit everyone with all four quarters’ fee in one sitting.
“If we don’t bill, we face a larger bill all at once,” he said.
Church suggested collecting the money but putting everything into escrow with the promise that, should MDE’s decision be appealed, a full refund is offered to those that were forced to pay.
Boggs agreed but warned Savage to get the word out to the impacted Ocean Pines residents.
Commissioner Louise Gulyas agreed.
“It’ll save you a lot of headaches,” she told Savage.
The commission voted to contact the Ocean Pines Association in the hopes of getting the word out to the community. A letter of appeal will also be drafted by the commission and forwarded to state delegates and potentially others who could sway MDE.
The one piece of good news to come out of the meeting was the revelation by Savage that this year’s mild winter meant the Ocean Pines Sanitary Service was easily able to come in under its nitrogen limit.
“Just so you know, we will not have to do this next year … We’re gold this year,” she said.