Objective Look At Sewer Systems Needed
Worcester County’s planners have a poop problem, but their solution may make us look more like Sussex County than the family vacation destination we claim to be.
Frontier Town and Sea Oaks Village gobbled up much of the Mystic Harbor sewage treatment system’s capacity to dispose of treated wastewater, leaving little capacity to continue developing the Rt. 611 corridor and elsewhere.
According to the county’s staff, options for expanding Mystic Harbor’s disposal capacity are limited. Spray irrigation on local golf courses is seasonal. Underground injection of wastewater has been problematical and suffers from public perception: where we use wells and drink groundwater, using injection wells for disposal of wastewater isn’t considered a long-term solution. Finally, there are caps limiting how much wastewater the county can send through the West Ocean City sewer system to the Ocean City treatment plant for ocean disposal.
One solution now gaining traction is to build a new wastewater pipeline from Mystic Harbor to the Riddle Farm treatment/storage facility, where there is excess capacity — sufficient capacity for the thousands of new homes and businesses developers are dreaming of building on the western side of Route 611. The County Commissioners are listening to the dreamers. Tuesday (March 21) the Commissioners agreed to hire consultants to evaluate new wastewater pipeline routes, each of which was selected to stimulate development along Route 611.
Building any new wastewater pipe-lines would be a dream fulfilled for the bankers and developers who see the swamps, farms and trees west of Rt 611 as an unproductive and underutilized use of prime real estate. Each proposed route could open a vast area extending west of Route 611 to the Holly Grove Road intersection with Route 50. The land in between would be ripe for draining and scraping bare so cookie-cutter houses could be planted as they have done in Sussex County. Some speculate as many as 5000 new homes could be built.
Responsible development is important for Worcester County. To a planner or engineer, an interconnection might make engineering sense if the goal is primarily to support growth along Rt. 611. But what about the taxpayer cost or the ecological impact of repurposing the swamps, forests and farmland that serve as an important environmental buffer helping to protect our struggling coastal bays.
Instead of building upon any of the existing arrangements serving the Rt. 50 corridor, a new pipeline will ultimately lead to more public spending on roads, water and wastewater services, police and fire services and schools. That means more taxes. The bankers and developers want the public to pay for this infrastructure, not the investors looking to maximize their profit.
Taking a broad look at our investment in water and wastewater services in Worcester County is long overdue. But the process should not be driven by bankers, real estate developers, planners or engineers.
Years ago, the prevailing view in the wastewater treatment business was “the solution to pollution is dilution.” That is a philosophy that created nutrient rich, oxygen starved dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. We shouldn’t let that discredited philosophy justify the growth this interconnection initiative is intended to support.
Down the road we will hear proposals for connecting this new pipeline to the treatment plants discharging into the St. Martin River and off our Atlantic beaches. When that day comes maybe our politicians will object as loudly as they do now to building wind farms far off the Ocean City shore.
Public Schools Budget Scrutiny Necessary
For those who watched the board meeting on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, there was a recurring theme, up until the very end of the night. That theme was the fact that I couldn’t even get a second for my motions to initiate a discussion amongst board members for the issues that were at hand. Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/live/uYRCYM6bZx0?feature=share
My first topic of discussion for my motion had to do with safety (2 hours, 22 minutes in video), I made a motion to develop a policy in which board members are notified of incidents involving law enforcement, ambulance calls, or student/-personnel altercations. Motion denied as I couldn’t get a second.
The Board of Education is a team, and we all need to work together with each other as well as the superintendent and administration of the board. When citizens of this county (our supervisors) contact me in regards to an incident, I want to be able to ensure the situation is being handled, not be hearing of the incident for the first time through potentially unreliable sources or hearsay.
My second topic of discussion for my motion had to do with the education bud-get (2 hours, 45 minutes in video). The budget was given to board members three days before our initial work session in early February. The “work session” was quick moving and as stated in the meeting minutes from Feb. 7 Mr. Tolbert, “provided an overview of the proposed FY24 expenditures by category.”
During the budget overview, Dr. Andes (District 3) asked one question in regards to the cost of energy and Mr. Ferrante (District 7) asked one question in regards to health insurance costs. I asked two questions in regards to the cost of updating iPads and about the bus contractors’ requests and when they would be finalized.
For a budget that encompasses over half of the overall county budget, just under $132 million, there should have been more than five minutes of questions from the board members in February.
On Tuesday, I presented a motion that stated we table the vote on this budget for one to two weeks at which point we would have an emergency open work session to discuss all aspects of the bud-get in its entirety. I made clear that we owe it to the taxpayers of this county to be prudent with our decisions and to be fiscally responsible with their money.
This was not supported by the board as I could not get a second for this motion either. Board members indicated Mr. Tolbert has spent a lot of time preparing this budget. They stated I had over a month to get any questions answered and coming from the superintendent, what I was proposing was a “waste of time.”
1. Demanding transparency and asking for additional time to make an educated, prudent decision is not a waste of time. In fact, I would argue that it would be the best time spent as a board to truly understand the inner workings of the most expensive budget in the county.
2. I have no doubt Mr. Tolbert spent a lot of time preparing this budget, that is, in fact, his job. I would hope that he spent a lot of time preparing this budget.
3. As stated at the board meeting, I easily could have sent emails or called Mr. Tolbert to answer my stack of questions, but then that would have taken a very important aspect out of this behind-the-scenes approach… My questions would not have been heard or answered in a public forum where the public (my supervisors) could digest for themselves what is being heard. It is imperative to not only say we as a board are for full transparency, but to actually display and act on that stance.
4. Arguably the most important point: The Board of Education Members ridiculed me for not doing my homework, and simultaneously voted on a budget that did not have all questions answered. The role of the Board of Education is to be the checks and balances to the superintendent and to ensure he is executing his directions from the board, via motions, made to his staff members. We are not to simply take what the administrators have to say at face value. Our job is to scrutinize the school system on behalf of the citizens of Worcester County.
The final motion made by myself the evening of March 21 had to do with sending a second letter of opposition to the state for HB119/SB199 (3 hours, 27 minutes in video). Many counties across the state have written opposition letters for HB119 to the state. For those of you not following the bill, instead of listening to the constituents on how this bill tramples on the rights of Maryland citizens and local control, the legislators in the House led by Del. Atterbeary decided to amend the bill and make it notably worse.
Instead of this bill forcing each county to follow a health framework, they have amended the bill to control and punish counties that don’t comply with the demands of the state. Forcing local school boards to surrender their authority to the state, this bill enables the state superintendent to punish local boards by taking away up to 20% of their funding from the state. This threat would only harm the students.
Never has the legislature or the appointed Superintendent demanded elected school boards what to teach, which comes down to curriculum and courses of study. The opt-out was also nullified in the amendment, as an opt-out must now meet the requirements and definition of the state (which could be anything). The votes of the citizens are undermined, which removes the rights for locals to determine the curriculum and courses of study. This is best left up to each local county who understands the needs of their communities.
I made a motion to send a strong second letter to the state, to not only oppose HB119/SB199, but to reject this bill in its entirety and to allow input and approval from board members before sending the letter to the state. And shockingly, I received a second. Dr. Andes seconded my motion because of the stance MABE (Maryland Association for Boards of Education) has on the bill. MABE opposes this bill as well.
Ms. Elena McComas (District 5) couldn’t understand why I wanted to write a second letter of opposition for the same bill when we already wrote once, and the majority of the state seemed to oppose the bill as well. She didn’t believe it would pass. I explained, because the bill has been amended, which has changed the verbiage of the bill in its entirety; it is virtually a brand new bill with the same bill number. The bill has passed in the House and is now in the Senate. Now, more than ever, we need to keep the pressure on our state senators and make sure this bill is not supported by local boards of education.
The motion was made, and the motion passed 6-1 with Elena McComas voting no to writing a second letter. Third motion was the charm.
Small wins are happening every day. Thank you to all citizens who are staying involved with our local education system.
(The writer is a member of the Worcester County Board of Education.)