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The big lie: The county has 'solved' the sewer crisis

January 11, 1998

The big lie: The county has 'solved' the sewer crisis

Just as Dorothy was able to talk her way back to Kansas by repeating "there's no place like home," the Washington County Commissioners apparently believe they can talk their way out of the sewer debt if they publicly repeat, often enough, that the problem is solved.

Last month the Commissioners clicked their ruby golf shoes three times and wrote for publication:

"This Board of County Commissioners has taken on some very tough issues and has not backed down from any of them. The Water and Sewer operation is now on the right track as a result of the many difficult decisions we have made over the past three years. The revenue now meets expenses, and the capacity to support both residential and industrial development for the county is available."

Well, I suppose you could call it "tough" to reach into your constituents' wallets and take their money.

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In some ways it may be "difficult" to dip deeply into the public treasury like Pooh Bear dipping his paw into a pot of honey.

You may view the largest taxpayer bailout in the history of Washington County as being on the "right track."

But the unavoidable Big Lie here is the notion that somehow "revenues are meeting expenses" in the county's water and sewer department.

The commissioners won't tell you the truth, so I will. Revenues haven't met expenses in the sewer department for the past five years, and they won't for at least the next 10.

In the absence of hard numbers (the county refuses to give them to our reporters - gee, I wonder why) it's a pretty good guess that the County Commissioners have already thrown $10 million in bailout money - your money - at the sewer department, and before it's all over that number will probably soar to $40 million, $50 million, or more.

It is very likely that the Washington County Commissioners will eventually have facilitated the largest taxpayer bailout in the entire state of Maryland since the Jeffrey Levitt-Old Court Savings and Loan debacle of the middle '80s.

And they call this a solution? This is like hearing a noise in your car engine and "solving" it by turning up the radio.

Let's be clear. This is not money that's being paid solely by the users of the county sewer system. This is money being paid by every resident of Washington County, whether city or county, whether they use public or private sewer systems.

These are millions on millions of dollars that won't go toward your kids' education. Dollars that won't go to public health, to fighting crime, to parks, to libraries, toward new jobs, the arts or the needy.

This is not a gray area. Tax dollars are not a sewer department "revenue." It's a subsidy, a bailout, plain and simple.

(And when you get your property tax bill this year, remember that the commissioners raised it to help pay for sewers.)

Commissioner Jim Wade then compounded the deceit in a published tirade in which he not only declared the problem solved, he insisted there are no alternatives.

He wrote: "So far I have heard not one single solution or alternative to the solution we instituted."

I'll give Wade credit. Usually politicians are smart enough not to put such a falsehood on the record. How about these widely publicized solutions, all of which have been floated in Wade's presence:

Raise sewer rates to levels recommended by consultants.

Mothball the cash-hemorrhaging pre-treatment plant.

Charge developers sewer fees on new lots.

Tax tip jar gambling at a reasonable level.

Immediately ask the City of Hagerstown to take the lead in establishing a countywide sewer authority.

For Wade not to have heard "one single alternative" means he must have polio of the ears. Or he was asleep. He wouldn't come out and blatantly lie to the people of Washington County, would he? No, of course not, he must have been asleep. He went on in his letter, challenging the paper to outline how things could have been done differently.

OK, I just did. And together, these real solutions would keep the county from robbing the children and the working men and women of this county of $2 million to $4 million a year.

They would deal with the problem so the legacy we leave our kids won't be one of debt.

As an added bonus, they are even legal - which the commissioners' current plan almost certainly is not.

Wade and the other commissioners have a solution all right. It's a solution that takes every easy way out and ducks every tough choice. It's a solution that counts on people not to realize that their tax money is being used, not for their own benefit, but to pay off a grossly overbuilt sewer toyland. It's a solution that counts on people being dumb enough to believe the commissioners' Big Lie that "revenues are meeting expenses."

When they penned these words, any last scrap of credibility the commissioners may have possessed vanished. They cannot be trusted to tell you the truth and they most certainly cannot be trusted to solve difficult problems.

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