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Flush Tax

(Published February 2005)

Stewardship means not only taking practical individual actions to improve our community and especially water quality in our local waterways, but taking political action to send the message to politicians that we want water quality in Chesapeake Bay improved. Previous NAPS Stewardship Tips have outlined practical individual actions we should all take, like maintaining our septic systems, using fertilizer wisely, maintaining wetlands, and respecting the 100-foot Resource Protection Area. The time is long overdue to tell politicians to “Clean up the Bay or else we’ll elect people who will.” Resisting a “flush tax” or other mechanism to fund upgrading wastewater treatment plants sends the opposite message.

How should citizens of Northumberland County view a “flush” tax? The first response of some people is “No more taxes!” Why should I pay $52 each year when it costs nearly that much to have my septic tank pumped? Why should I pay to upgrade distant sewage treatment plants that contribute little or no pollution to local waterways? Let the flushers pay, I already pay! Of course people can’t make this argument if they don’t actually have their septic tanks pumped every 5 years, as existing (unenforced) law dictates.

But there is another side to the economic argument. Which Virginia County is likely to gain the most from a cleaner Chesapeake Bay? With an immense amount of shoreline and an economy becoming more dependent on retirees each year, it’s probably Northumberland County! Why not contribute a little bit, but let other Virginians pay most of the cost of improving our environment, increasing our property values and improving our recreation? The three F’s, Farming, Fishing and Forestry no longer drive the economy of Northumberland County. The latest statistics, in the Appendix of the Comprehensive Plan currently under revision, can be found on the county web site or on reserve at the Public Library in Heathsville, and comments are still being solicited for all chapters and the appendix. The projections are sobering. We are a white-collar county, where retirement earnings, dividends and rental income exceed net earnings from jobs. Property values are currently being re-assessed at considerably higher values. How much will the value of property increase, especially waterfront property, if we ever reach the stated nutrient-reduction goals for Chesapeake Bay? Of course, “paper profits” do not pay the bills, and maybe only our heirs will benefit financially from increased property values, but the long-term economics are clear.

The sad truth is that wastewater treatment plants should have been upgraded more than a decade ago, and the upgrades should have been financed by the same mechanism that built the facilities in the first place, not a tax on everybody. The polluter pays. But it hasn’t happened. Neither the State nor EPA has the stomach to demand that users pay for the necessary upgrades. Installing nutrient-removal technology in wastewater plants would roughly double the household wastewater bill, hardly an onerous burden. The State cries for Federal funds to accomplish wastewater plant upgrades. Why not let other Americans pay to improve Chesapeake Bay? But why should our taxes go to clean up the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico when the money is needed here? It seems much more likely that every $52 collected by a Virginia flush tax has a better chance of actually being used in Virginia to reduce nutrient pollution of Chesapeake Bay than $52 collected by the Federal Government.

Let’s not bicker about $1 a week. A cleaner Bay is to our advantage, not only in terms of increased property values, but in terms of better fishing, crabbing, boating, etc. Economics aside, cleaning up the Bay is the right thing to do. We have procrastinated, argued, studied, finger-pointed and generally avoided spending any serious money to actually improve the Bay for over a decade. The Bay has responded with larger “Dead Zones”, no improvement in the amount of Submerged Aquatic Vegetation, and growing concern about recreational fish stocks. Bickering about a flush tax merely sends the message to the politicians that they can continue to do nothing. Maybe no action and $52 more in pocket-change each year is what most people want. That is what we’ll get, no action, and no improvement in the Bay, if the majority of people don’t support funding upgrades of wastewater treatment facilities.


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