Panel to look at capping water rates in Montgomery County, Prince George's County

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Local,Maryland,Andy Brownfield,Montgomery County,Prince Georges County

ANNAPOLIS - A Maryland panel will examine capping some water utility fees in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, as well as requiring better notification as to how long the fees will be charged, officials said Monday.

The state Task Force to Study Rates and Charges in the Washington Suburban Sanitary District, which was created under legislation passed last year, was set up to address the suburban counties' water rates -- which are among some of the highest in the country -- and possible fee overpayments by ratepayers.

"For lack of a better word, it's a Wild West out there," said Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, D-Prince George's County. Peters sponsored the bill that created the task force.

The task force will study states that have capped rate increases and try to determine what effect a cap would have on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves the two counties, Peters said.

The WSSC increased rates 7.5 percent last year, costing the average ratepayer an additional $4.86 per month. Between 2008 and 2012, the utility increased rates 34 percent.

The agency and private utilities also levy a charge to connect homes to water infrastructure. The task force -- which is made up of lawmakers, county officials, developers and contractors -- will look at the actual cost of connecting new pipes or reconnecting old ones versus the fees levied to see if the WSSC or private companies are overcharging and pocketing the profits. Those fees aren't always disclosed during home sales, leaving some owners to discover them later on their utility bills, Peters said.

The legislation creating the task force also required a notice on the property tax bill for all Prince George's homeowners letting them know how many of the payments they have left to make. Montgomery County residents are already given that information.

"A lot of people get bills that say nothing on them. Just $1,000 HOA [Homeowners Association], and they're left to ask, 'when's this going to end?' " Peters said.

Peters said the panel over the next several meetings will look at the possibility of offering a discount to homeowners who pay their fee upfront instead of making monthly payments, as well as capping water and sewer rate increases. It also will make recommendations on how utilities charge residents for the construction of new infrastructure.

"We want to know what's going on here, and where we can tighten up a little bit," Peters said.

The task force will have at least one public hearing to get input from water customers.

The WSSC is the eighth largest water and sewer utility in the nation, serving 1.8 million Marylanders. It maintains nearly 5,500 miles of water main lines and over 5,400 miles of sewer main lines.

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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