Attempt at 'story inflation' won't work

December 07, 1997

Attempt at 'story inflation' won't work

Elsewhere on this page is a long letter from the Washington County Commissioners, objecting to the handling of a news story about developments at the county's Water and Sewer Department. It's long been the Herald-Mail's policy to make space available on a timely basis to those who object to how the paper has handled a news story, which is why it appears prominently displayed on this page today.

But granting the commissioners this space does not mean The Herald-Mail agrees with their point, although I personally sympathize with the county employees who had to bear the brunt of citizens' criticism after revelations about the water/sewer system's $50 million-plus debt and subsequent rate increases.

Just answering the phone got to be hazardous duty for some county workers, who didn't know whether the next call would be a routine inquiry or a blast of anger from someone upset over increasing utility charges. For a while, being an employee of the water and sewer department was like being an Internal Revenue Service agent at tax time. So I can understand how, after what seemed like an Arctic winter of bad news, the county employees would want to celebrate any good news from that area.


Unfortunately for them, the story is less than they're trying to make out of it.

Don't believe me? Well, as objectively as I can, I'll try to describe what happened.

For a number of years, the people who service porta-potties and septic tanks have been dumping their loads into the county's conventional treatment plants. It's concentrated, high-strength stuff, and to prevent it from doing further damage to the Conococheague and Nicodemus plants, the county had budgeted $711,000 for upgrades.

Not necessary, said Greg Murray, the county's water and sewer director. Move the stuff to the county's industrial pre-treatment plant, which is built to handle strong stuff, and save the $711,000 in construction costs. The move would also mean a $200,000 increase in pre-treatment plant revenues, important at a facility which has lost $2.4 million since it opened in 1994.

That prompted Herald-Mail's Steve Dennis to ask Murray why the septic tank and porta-potty waste hadn't been going to the pre-treatment plant all along. No comment, said Murray. And so while we're certainly glad that Murray was smart enough to figure out how to save county taxpayers $700,000, we have to wonder why someone didn't figure it out three years ago. We have to wonder why the $700,000 upgrade was ever put in the budget in the first place.

And if shifting the stuff to the pre-treatment plant will result in an additional $200,000 in revenue, won't there also be a loss in revenue at the conventional treatment plants? If I own two convenience stores and one of my customers decides to stop buying soda pop at one store and starts buying it at the other, has my business really increased?

The same is true of the proposal to stop sending sewage sludge to the landfill and placing it on farmland instead. The county says it's going to save $90,000 a year doing that, but that doesn't count $220,000 in lost revenue at the landfill.

In other words, there's a story here about a good employee who was smart enough to see that by moving some high-strength poop to a plant that could better handle it, the county could avoid spending $700,000. But the truth is that if someone had been on the stick three years ago, that money never would have been in the budget. And the county's claim that it will save significant sums by changing disposal methods for high-strength waste and sludge is dubious, unless the stuff was being treated for free previously.

And not to nit-pick, but putting sludge on farm fields is still in the proposal stage. If you'll remember, when the City of Hagerstown tried to buy a farm to do the same thing several years ago, citizens rose up in opposition and the city ended up building a pelletization plant. Citizens may or may not object to this plan, but presenting the idea as if it's a done deal is premature.

Finally, as to the commissioners' objection over the placement of this story, on Page B3, next to the obituaries, instead of on the front page: On the day in question, the top story was the tragic death of local student-athlete Charas Heurich. Second spot went to the county board's decision to not to welcome in a medical disposal waste facility they'd previously declared a good idea. Across the bottom was the sale of Valley Mall, for half what it brought in 1989. The one story that might have been replaced was a wire service "bright" on an American Lung Association advisory telling workers that a simple cold isn't cause for taking off work.

And as long as we're talking about story placement, the sludge proposal (a separate story) made front page story in both The Morning Herald and The Daily Mail.

When good employees do good things, a public pat on the back is in order. But to try to spin that into something grander isn't right. As for the commissioners' absurd claim that the water and sewer department's revenue "now meets expenses," do they really believe anyone has forgotten that $3.5 million subsidy from the general fund? It's one more example of how far from reality this administration really is.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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