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Water and sewer rate increases upset residents

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

The Town of Thurmont is taking heat from residents upset about water and sewer rate increases that were charged retroactively.

Thurmont's commissioners approved an increase in the town's water and sewer rates on May 24. Commissioners also decided to charge residents the increased rate retroactively to the beginning of the quarter, which was April 15, town clerk Rick May said.

The resolution increased the water rate to $4.15 per 1,000 gallons and the sewer rate to $5.95 per 1,000 gallons, making the combined rate $10.10 effective May 21. The previous combined rate was $6 per $1,000 gallons.

The bills sent to residents in July charged the increased rate for the entire quarter, May said.

Based on an average daily use for water and sewer of 437,770 gallons -- a figure provided by May -- the town billed about $70,000 more for the quarter ending in July than it would have using the former rates.

At the town meeting on Aug. 3, resident Robert Kerr complained about the backdated increase, questioning the ethics and legality of charging an increase in rate retroactively. He suggested he might have modified his use of the services had he known the town was charging him more.

During that meeting, board members briefly discussed the cost of refunding residents the difference, but took no action in that regard.

Kerr returned Tuesday night to the board meeting to again raise the issue. He told commissioners that the increased charges between the beginning of the billing quarter and May 24 cost him $35, enough to buy nearly two tanks of gas and get him back and forth to work for a week.

He said he would have much rather done that with the money than give it to the town.

Resident John Ashbury said he was also concerned about the backdating of the water and sewer charges, which cost him an additional $42 in April and May.

He said that was enough to take his wife to dinner, and he would much rather do that than pay money to the town.

Ashbury questioned whether the action to backdate the rates was legal when the resolution for the rate change, signed by the mayor, is dated May 24.

Town Commissioner Bill Blakeslee said he determined the change for his family was about $26.

Blakeslee said he did not understand how the resolution effective date became May 24, because he remembered the board discussing the issue before then. He specifically remembered joking that he should have filled his pool up before the rate change took place.

May said the town attorney has recommended the board initiate an amendment to the original ordinance that will "clarify the dates."

That public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Aug. 24.

Town attorney Debra Borden of Board and Borden in Frederick said the amendment would simply correct a mistake.

The board approved the rate change for the billing cycle of April through June and billed the residents in July.

The rates are not set, she said, but rather are "subject to change" until they are actually billed to the residents.

Borden said if the town didn't increase the rates for this last quarter, it would likely just increase the rates more in the next quarters make sure the town collects the money it needs to cover expenses.

"This is not a money-making operation," she said. "They are just trying to break even."

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