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Privatize the sewers?

September 15, 1998

Pity all the candidates for Washington County Commissioner!

After waiting all night Tuesday to hear whether they're going to get past the Sept. 15 primary election, they'll have to get up at dawn Wednesday to hear from a company whose officials feel they have a solution to the county's water and sewer crisis.

The proposed solution? Privatize the systems. The 7:30 a.m. Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Hagerstown Ramada Inn's ballroom will feature an explanation of how that might be done by Howard J. Woods Jr., a top executive of the AmericanAnglian/American Water Works Service Company.

Chamber officials say the program will involve three parts - a discussion of the possible levels of privatization, a look at how regulated utilities work here versus those in other countries and the decision-making steps this community would have to go through to change the present system.

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We know that the advisory board to the now-defunct Washington County Sanitary Commission batted around the idea of privatization, but the firm they dealt with was only offering to operate the plants, and not take on the accumulated debt.

If the plants are truly privatized, with the company agreeing to take on the $50 million-plus debt, that could mean two things. One is that money-losing sewer projects like the one in Sandy Hook, where more than 50 homes were once served by well-contaminating privies and cesspools, probably wouldn't get done in the future without general-fund subsidies.

The other is that decisions on where to extend service probably wouldn't be subject to political influence, and agreements to waive hook-up fees for a firm bringing in high-paying jobs would mean negotiating with another private company.

Perhaps eliminating political influence over water and sewer service wouldn't be bad thing, since zoning and other rules would still be in place to direct development. We are always leery, however, of proposals to solve government problems by selling public property. Before any deal is approved, however, the public needs a great deal of assurance that the "fix" will last longer than the current generation of county office-holders.

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