Leonardtown, MD — Officials of the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission (MetCom) have been challenged on the water and sewer agency’s rates, salaries and borrowing policies. The officials were hit with a barrage of questions by several of the Commissioners of St. Mary’s County during an April 19 meeting.

Commissioner Mike Hewitt [shown, R – 2nd District] led the questioning during the meeting at which MetCom made the annual presentation of their proposed capital budget to the commissioners. The commissioners have a vote on that budget based on a bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly several years ago.

Appearing before the commissioners were MetCom Executive Director Scott Bundy, Chief Financial Officer Becky Shick and Chief Engineer Dave Elberti.

Hewitt pressed Bundy on the more than $40 million borrowed since 2010 for capital projects that has not been used, what Hewitt called “dead money” and for which debt service was being paid. Bundy explained that some of the monies had been set aside for several new wells that they had hoped to bid as one project to save money. One of those well projects had been held up due to problems securing land.

Bundy said they recently decided to split the project and a bid came in one million dollars lower than budgeted. But on questioning from Hewitt, Bundy was not willing to say that the agency saved money with the delay. And he said MetCom was not planning on going to the bond market in the coming fiscal year.

Hewitt also challenged administrative salaries, saying the commission’s own records showed administrative personnel received a 27.3 percent salary increase from 2012-2016. Rank and file water and sewer personnel received 17.4 and 18,.3 percent respectively. Bundy, who has been on the job for six months, said she wasn’t familiar with the figures.

The agency’s commission recently asked Bundy to come up with some information on a salary study for employees. Hewitt said any study should look at the discrepancy in salary increases.

Hewitt also methodically went over reports he had received from constituents about rate increases for a fraternal organization, a residence and a commercial operation. The fraternal organization paid only $1.72 for sewer usage and $1.36 for water but was hit with a monthly bill of $305.54 for ready-to-serve and system improvement charges. Bundy explained the ready to serve charge covered the agency’s overhead and system improvement charges cover cost of infrastructure to provide the water and sewer services.

“The point is it doesn’t seem fair,” Hewitt said. Bundy said he would be glad to sit down with the rate payer and explain how the money they are paying is being used.

Hewitt also talked about a homeowner who uses irrigation and whose bill had risen to $780.55 for 54,000 gallons of water. Bundy explained that the proposed new rate structure that will go in effect on July 1 will limit sewer usage charges to 10,000 gallons. 

The other big complaint, particularly among commercial users, is the new system of tying rates to the meter size. Many businesses put in lager meters when that wasn’t an issue and are now being penalized for it, Hewitt said. One of his constituents saw their monthly bill go from $870 to $1,138.

Hewitt noted that when the new rates went into effect last July it was said that 60 percent of the customers would pay less. With the large increases for some customers, Hewitt wondered if the agency wasn’t coming out ahead. Shick reported the budget represented a revenue neutral effect of the rate changes. She did say though that revenue is running a little behind, although the lawn watering season is still ahead.

Bundy reminded the commissioners that the prime motivation behind the rate changes was that people were being charged even if they weren’t using service, such as people who closed their homes for the winter to live in Florida or for vacant rental properties.

Hewitt’s concerns were backed up by several of the other commissioners. Later in the April 19 meeting Hewitt commended MetCom for “heading in the right direction.”

The commissioners and MetCom have a joint meeting scheduled for next month.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com