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County wants to merge water-sewer with city

August 03, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

The Maryland Department of the Environment has told the Washington County Commissioners and the City of Hagerstown to consider creating a regional partnership to manage water and sewer service.

J.L. Hearn, director of the Water Management Administration, wrote to the commissioners this week and said the Hagerstown area was "a potential model for the successful integration of the concepts of Smart Growth," with respect to water and sewer.

Hearn noted that the county's Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant was "significantly underutilized," operating at only 52 percent of its 2.5 million gallon per day capacity, while the city is planning to expand its treatment plant from 8 million gallons per day to 10.5 million.

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A regional approach could result in cost savings to both the city and the county, Hearn said. Future grants and loans will be geared toward having the most cost-effective use of sewer service, according to the letter.

State officials said they weren't holding a gun to the city and county's head.

"We're not absolutely saying you must develop an authority," said Virginia Kearney, a state water management program administrator.

"That would be something that would be locally addressed," she said.

The Washington County Commissioners praised the letter and said they hoped the city would consider the idea now that Steven T. Sager is no longer mayor. Sager had vehemently opposed merging with the county's debt-ridden system.

City councilmen were more cautious but said there were many areas where the two groups could work together.

"It only makes perfect sense," said Commissioner James R. Wade, who said he has pushed for a regional authority for the past two years.

Wade said creating one authority would produce better and cheaper service for the city and the county, while making it easier to manage growth.

Wade said having an authority would reduce any objections the county might have to city annexation plans regarding the new shopping center planned for the U.S. 40-Interstate 81 interchange.

"We depend on that corridor if (the Conococheague) plant is going to survive," he said.

"I'm elated to see the state step forward in encouraging the community to come together for the future and the benefit of the county rate payers and taxpayers ... It's long overdue," said Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers.

Bowers said he's been pushing for regionalization since 1984.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said a regional authority might be a long way off but some type of incremental changes such as reallocating sewer flows to different plants could make sense for both sides.

Snook also said the state's interest will help get things moving.

"When they carry the big stick meaning the money, they will definitely have an impact on what happens in this area," Snook said.

City Councilman William M. Breichner said the city and county definitely needed to sit down together.

"I don't care if we sit there for an hour and stare at each other. I think we need to start meeting," he said.

But Breichner said the problems weren't as simple as Hearn put it.

Breichner said any expansion of the city's plant was a long way off, possibly as long as 10 or 15 years, and said allocating more of the city's sewer districts to the Conococheague would require installing a lot of costly sewer lines and pump stations.

"I'm not arguing against what Hearn is saying. I just think his expectations are a little off," Breichner said.

Breichner said the city and county could both benefit by consolidating some operations.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said there are a lot of opportunities for win-win situations between the city and the county, and said he thinks the letter gives both sides a strong incentive to sit down and hash it out.

Metzner said that having joint meetings with the county are critically important but have continually fallen through because of scheduling difficulties.

But Metzner said he wouldn't support anything that wasn't in the best interest of city citizens and customers.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II didn't return phone calls Friday. Sager was out of town and couldn't be reached.

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