LAUREL – Neighbors and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties don’t always agree. This was the case at the bi-county meeting on May 12, where both county councils met jointly to vote on the budgets for the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission and the Washington Suburban Transit Commission, as well as parts of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission budget.
M-NCPPC and WSTC’s budgets passed unanimously, but two Prince George’s County Council members voted against the WSSC operating budget. WSSC’s capital improvement program for fiscal years 2017 through 2022 also received unanimous support.
Council members Mary Lehman and Andrea Harrison voted against the operating budget because they felt the rate increase of 3 percent placed a burden on WSSC customers, who don’t get good service for their money.
“They don’t deserve a rate increase, in my opinion, until they can prove that they believe in supporting the customers,” said Harrison, who has voted against the WSSC budget at the Prince George’s County Council sessions each year since 2008. She said this year she wanted to make a point to vote no at the bi-county meeting as well.
“Quality of services hasn’t increased. I have one community whose streets have been torn up for the last two years, and I can’t get (WSSC) to come in and finish the job so the streets can be repaved. That’s unacceptable.”
She also shared the story of constituents who had a water main near their home leaking for an entire weekend, which resulted in gallons of water lost. Lehman said residents in Laurel had also had the same experience and were charged for the water lost to the leak.
Lehman added another reason for her opposition to the rate increase was that a rate study is currently being devised, which will begin in the next fiscal year.
“I just think we should freeze the rates while we’re doing a rate study,” she said.
During the initial vote, a miscommunication occurred that led Harrison to make a motion to re-consider the WSSC operating budget. It was seconded by Council member George Leventhal of Montgomery County, who said he had no objection to the budget and only seconded the motion because the bi-county meeting rules require seconds to come from a member of the other County’s Council other than the person who made the original motion.
“I seconded only as a courtesy to my colleagues,” Leventhal said.
He added he and the rest of the Montgomery council did not object to the rate increase because of WSSC’s need to repair and replace aging infrastructure. He, too, pointed to water main breaks in his county, but used them to illustrate the scope of repairs needed.
“I’m sorry that rate payers have to pay more, but WSSC needs to invest in its infrastructure,” he said.
Lehman said she was also concerned with infrastructure, which is why she requested the WSSC CIP, which funds the infrastructure investments, be separated from the operating budget during voting.
“I am (concerned) too, which is why I supported the capital budget. But these rate increases are really hard on our customers,” she said. “The rate goes up every single year without fail.”
The WSSC budget as approved totals $1.4 billion ($735.5 million operating and $685.5 million CIP). The councils increased total spending by $178,836 over WSSC’s proposal, driven mainly by $2.9 million for increased sewage disposal costs and $330,500 to pay for five new customer service positions to be filled after January 2017. Cutting positions and reducing the projected impact of the customer assistance program offset those increases.
The WSTC’s approved budget is $117,760 for Prince George’s and $140,260 for Montgomery.
For M-NCPPC, the bi-county portion of the budget funds the agency’s central administrative services (CAS), including the office of law and the information officer and staff. The councils approved the compensation changes for CAS staff and a bargaining agreement with Fraternal Order of Police 30.
Leadership on both councils feels they have gotten more accustomed to working jointly on issues like this in recent years.
“I think this year we really worked well together, and I think we’re set for the foundation for what it will look like in the future,” Chair of the Prince George’s County Council Derrick Davis said.
Nancy Floreen, president of the Montgomery County Council, agreed and thanked Davis for running the bi-county session.
“It’s been a pleasure sharing this afternoon,” she said.
As for Lehman and Harrison, although they were outvoted, they said they will continue to push for changes at WSSC. Both said they were encouraged by new WSSC General Manager Carla Reid, who they feel is making customer service more of a priority than her predecessors.
“I think she’s a breath of fresh air. I do think things are going in a better direction. She is much more committed to customers and to at least meeting them halfway,” Lehman said.
Both women said they will also push for changes at the Maryland General Assembly, which will give them more flexibility in handling this issue, and others in the future.
Lehman said current law prevents the council from making a stronger push against rate increases, or any other part of the budget.
“If we have one disagreement in the entire budget, the state law on the books says that then WSSC’s proposed budget from the beginning is what ends up being implemented, so it ties our hands,” she said.
Harrison said she tried to get a bill through during this past session to stipulate that if the two counties can’t agree, the budget item in question would revert back to the previous year’s approved level. But, while the Prince George’s County delegation supported the measure, their Montgomery County colleagues did not.
“Montgomery County Council didn’t support it. The Montgomery County delegation didn’t support it. So we’ll just continue to try to get people to understand that it’s our ratepayers who are being hurt by this,” she said.