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Editorial - Battling crime with film

June 06, 1997

Like many folks, the Washington County Commissioners aren't completely certain what to expect from newly elected Hagerstown Mayor Bob Bruchey.

But there is one thing they do know, he's not Steve Sager and that alone may have some positive implications for the county's ongoing water and sewer troubles.

Sager always said he was willing to help the county work out a solution to its $56 million water and sewer debt, but there was little evidence that it was a priority - especially as it pertained to any type of cooperative, city/county effort. Sager's tiffs with Washington County Commissioner Ron Bowers were well-documented and as long as they both remained in office there was never any real chance of sincere negotiations.

Further, Sager didn't want his city residents in any way paying for county mistakes. To this end, he slammed the door toward any county overture.

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As a city resident, I appreciated his protectiveness. But I also understand that Hagerstown and Washington County are not islands unto themselves.

City residents helped elect the County Commissioners who made the terrible decisions that caused the sewer-system overbuilding and overspending.

And it is folly to think that as city residents we won't pay for those decisions. City property owners will see their taxes increase because of the sewer debt. City parents will see the sewer debt sap county funding away from their kids. Everyone who uses county services, in other words everyone, will pay.

So it's in the city's interest to get involved.

Commissioners are hoping Bruchey won't be as hard-line as his predecessor, and are already putting out feelers in his direction.

County officials believe, and they are correct, that the sewer issue is part of a larger, county growth issue. Of course you can say it is financially convenient for them to argue thusly, but put that aside for a moment.

While the county has a problem of too much sewer-treating ability, the city has its own problem, in that it does not have enough. So as county treatment capacity goes begging, city customers will be paying to add more. What's wrong with this picture? Anyone?

It seems there has to be some sort of mutually beneficial solution here - namely, pipe West End city sewage to the big, underused county treatment plant on the Conococheague. That eases the demand on the city plant, while producing a revenue-generating supply for the county plant.

Of course this is easier said than done.

Sager has maintained there are serious technical difficulties involved in rerouting sewage, and undoubtedly there are. But I have a hunch they are nothing compared to the political difficulties encountered in telling a sizable number of customers they are being switched from the city to the county sewer system. This is like telling a North End retired couple that for basic transportation they have to give up their Lincoln Towne Car for the Anaconda at King's Dominion.

Of course the real issue here is that there shouldn't be any such thing as a city sewer department and a county water department - for obvious reasons of efficiency and economy, there should be one sewer and water district serving Hagerstown and Washington County.

Trouble is, we always run into that four-letter word "turf."

But if ever turf should not be an issue it is now. The county should be willing to surrender on some consolidation issues in exchange for having the ponderous sewer and water monkey at least partially removed from its back. Besides, the city has proved better at managing its utilities - on merit, it should get to draw up a majority of the rules.

Even if out-and-out consolidation isn't instantaneous, city and county governments can begin work in that direction by jointly managing sewage flows with an eye toward growth, capacity and need.

As growth occurs to the eastern outskirts of Hagerstown, more sewage on the western outskirts can be rerouted to the county. (Isn't this a lovely discussion for a Sunday morning?)

This is a terribly complicated and terribly delicate issue; real leadership would be necessary to pull it off.

But a $56 million debt can be a powerful motivator. Without it, the county's 23 unwieldy and politicized sewer subdistricts might have never been consolidated into one.

Ron Bowers likes to call the debt an "opportunity." Who knows? If it drives the commissioners to join hands with the city to draw up a single, smart, comprehensive sewer and water strategy for all of Washington County's public utility users he could wind up being right.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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