The arrival of bills for the state's new "flush tax" is taking some property owners by surprise in Charles County.

"I have cauliflower ear," said County Treasurer Jerome Peuler. "I think we've probably received thousands of phone calls because people are not used to getting a bill that looks like a tax bill out of cycle."

The new Maryland "flush tax," a $30 fee that generates money for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Restoration Fund, will be collected for the first time this year. It was seen as a major piece of environmental legislation for Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

It is expected to raise $60 million to $70 million a year to upgrade the state's 66 major sewage treatment plants to reduce the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus that pollute the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. The money also will be used to upgrade septic systems and fund a cover-crop program that encourages farmers to plant crops that absorb nitrogen.

Owners of property with buildings on them, whether they use public water and sewer systems or septic tanks, must pay the fee.

"People are coming in here saying, 'I have a two-hole outhouse, I'm not going to pay you.' " Peuler said. "We have a saying around here: 'You pee, you poo, you pay.' The three P's, you know?"

Logistics caused the outcry in Charles County and other counties as much as economic reasons. Public utility customers have been paying the fee in regular increments since Jan. 1, but septic users are charged in one annual $30 payment, effective Oct. 1.

Instead of charging property owners for something that did not yet exist on Sept. 30 tax bills, Charles County billed septic system users separately, setting off as many as 1,000 calls on some days, Peuler said. Next year the fee will be a part of the regular property tax bill.

Garrett County was "bombarded" with calls after billing 10,335 well and septic users in October, said Wendy Yoder, director of the county's financial services department. Some callers flatly refused to pay, but Yoder says she's encouraged that only about a quarter of those billed did not pay.

Montgomery County septic system users won't be charged until next year, but they'll be charged seven quarters' worth, or $52.50, said Tim Firestine, director of the county's Department of Finance. However, the lack of a state database identifying septic users, makes it tough to know who to charge, Firestine said.

"But we don't know whether the process of elimination leaves us with the people who are on well and septic," he said. "I think we'll get the same dramatic increase in calls next year."