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Editorial - Seeking sewer cash

March 24, 1998

Editorial - Seeking sewer cash

About 95 percent of the homes in the Pangborn East sewer district have problems with their septic systems, according to the Washington County Health Department, so it makes sense to provide sewer service there. But at what cost?

The county commissioners asked themselves that question last week, and probably will answer it by doing again what they've been doing with the rest of the county system - subsidizing it with general fund dollars. But unless the governor signs a bill sought by the commissioners to make such a subsidy legal, the county board's action only hasten the day when this subsidy will face a court challenge.

The system, designed to serve 50 homes, will cost $700,000, but will yield only $8,000 a year in operating revenue. Hook-up fees to the county will generate a little bit less than $90,000, which leaves the general fund to make up a lot of ground.

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Traditionally, sewer system users have paid their bills without drawing on the general fund. And although some might make the argument that the entire community benefits when the groundwater isn't threatened by septic waste, the entire community doesn't benefit from the increase in property values that results when a home has municipal water and sewer. And because the entire community is providing the capital (by taking on bonded debt), there should be a payback, even if it takes a while.

Our suggestion: Create a special taxing district for the Pangborn East system, then determine what a reasonable hook-up fee for the system would be if users were paying the full freight. Then assess a portion of that fee - capped at $1,000, perhaps - every time the property changes hands.

If those 50 homes changed hands three times in 20 years, that would raise $150,000 to help with debt service, cash elected officials wouldn't have otherwise.

So while it may be true, as Commissioner Lee Downey says, that state or federal grants will no longer fund 90 percent of a sewer system's costs, it doesn't mean that elected officials should stop looking for other ways to pay the bill, even if no one has forced the issue in court.

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