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Editorial - Thoughts on a merger

January 02, 1998

Does is make sense to expand the City of Hagerstown's sewage-treatment plant when Washington County's Conococheague plant is running at only 52 percent of capacity? That's the question state officials asked this past August when they suggested it might be time for a city/county partnership on water and sewer issues. Elected officials will soon get a look at how such a merger might be accomplished, and we urge that they and citizens look at such ideas with an open mind.

When suggestions for a utility merger first surfaced, we noted that city and county officials were inclined to distrust each other. For that reason, we recommended that they direct their respective staffs to meet and come up with some first small steps toward cooperation. If the small steps went well, and the two sides developed some trust in each other, we reasoned, then eventually they might agree on a full-blown merger.

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Well, since October the city and county staffs have been meeting on possible areas of cooperation, and will soon schedule sessions with elected officials. Because they've agreed not to leak details of what they've come up with, we can't comment on any specific proposals. We can, however, talk about what we don't want to hear.

We don't want to hear alternate versions of reality. The Washington County water/sewer department has serious debt problems, and would come to any merger like a prospective spouse bearing a stack of credit-card bills. Pretending that debt isn't a problem won't help the situation.

Nor do we want to hear that the two governments can each go their own way. The state's letter makes clear that future grants and loans will be geared toward having the most cost-effective use of sewer service. State officials said at the time that it wasn't a threat, but it is a clear signal that Maryland will no longer fund needless duplication.

Finally, we do want to hear an acknowledgment that each government needs the other to be financially healthy. It's time for all to resist the urge to score short-term political points and plan together for the region's long-term future.

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