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Editorial - A water-sewer merger?

August 04, 1997

It was easy for former Hagerstown Mayor Steve Sager to dismiss talk of a regional water/sewer agency as a crackpot scheme when the only ones pushing it were the Washington County Commissioners. It won't be so easy now that the idea has been raised the Maryland Department of the Environment.

We stand by our original comment on this issue: Trust between the two governments needs to be built step-by-step before any merger takes place.

Sager's take on any proposed merger has always been that because the county has a smaller number of customers to cover its debt, merging county operations (and their debt) with the city's would mean customers served by the city would see their bills go up.

On the other side is J.L. Hearn, director of the Water management Administration, who notes that while the county's Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant is "significantly underutilized," the city is planning to add capacity at its plant. Future grants, Hearn said, will focus on cost-effective use of sewer service.

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Hearn said he was not mandating a two system merger, but future grant awards may resemble the one the state is offering Boonsboro and Keedysville. If the two towns can put together a regional water system, they get a $1.5 million grant. If not, they get to fund state-mandated improvements on their own.

When the merger idea was first raised, we suggested an incremental approach. That is, begin city/county cooperation on the small things - joint maintenance agreements and the like - while negotiating the larger questions. We also agree with Councilman Bill Breichner's proposal to begin meetings now, but not with elected officials at the table.

The difficulty with any city-county negotiation has always been getting elected officials to put aside their concerns about turf and power. Let's start by getting city and county staffs to begin brainstorming on some merger proposals. Their expertise should rule out pie-in-the-sky plans that make good headlines but which are unworkable in practice, and provide a forum for calm deliberation of a plan for the county's future.

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