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Revenge is the hollow meal voters shouldn't feast on

September 29, 1998

Tim RowlandAs the primary election approached, several candidates for the General Assembly groused that they couldn't get the public's attention pried away Washington County's sewer problems long enough to talk about state issues.

The public is right to be mad, and its anger showed up in thousands of anti-incumbent votes scattered over too wide a field to deliver the electoral jolt that would have occurred in a smaller field.

Yet with the news this week that the county is running a $4.5 million surplus and claims by the Commissioners that they have turned the corner on the water and sewer problems, the issue does merit more discussion.

First, you have to be very careful when listening to these Commissioners. They have a Clintonesque way of interpreting words like "borrow," and are not above numerical sleights-of-hand to make the debt appear less severe.

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For example, they don't like to count the cash-sucking sewage pretreatment plant as part of the sewer debt because, they say, it is an "economic development expense," not a "sewer expense."

And when they say they aren't borrowing any money to pay off the sewer debt - well, no, they aren't. Instead, they are giving money that should be going to education, fire and rescue, recreation and other general-fund beneficiaries to pay back the sewer bonds.

Still, the Commissioners are correct when they say a solution is in place. It's a solution that causes as little up-front pain as possible, guarantees that the county will be haunted by the debt well into the next century and hopes for the best. It may not sound great, but remember with a problem of this magnitude there are no easy or comfortable ways out.

Commissioners have taken some other positive steps, such as standardizing rates and bringing the sewer board under direct control of the Commission.

And as long as economic times remain good, this solution will work and probably work rather well. The county has had the good fortune (if you can call it that) of having the sewer crisis come to a head during a flush economic cycle. Had this debt come due in 1992, the consequences would have been unthinkable.

But revenues won't be pouring into the county treasury forever. Realizing this, the commissioners are wisely emphasizing debt reduction and cash reserves as they carve up the $4.5 million surplus.

Does all this mean the county has truly "turned the corner?" I tend to think that it does. I'd guess there will still be some bruising times ahead, when the economy turns downward and parents realize their kids aren't getting the optimum education because school money must be cut in deference to sewers. But a workable plan is indeed in place.

Does that mean the voting public will, or should, be more charitable to the four Commissioner candidates who had a hand in fostering the debt? That's hard to say.

Ironically, Jim Wade, the one commissioner who had nothing to do with the sewer fiasco but did the most to fix it isn't running again. You may disagree with him on other issues, but Wade stepped in as the point man on the sewer issue, worked hard on a solution, became bloodied (and understandably bitter) in the process and is leaving after one term. That's public service.

Commissioners Ron Bowers, Greg Snook and John Shank and former Commissioner Linda Irvin-Craig all bear some degree of responsibility. All four were on the Commission in the early '90s and ignored the audits and a citizens' task force report that screamed of impending trouble. All four had a hand in the pretreatment plant. None recognized the need to keep rates in line with the costs.

You can argue their greatest crime was being passive and failing to reel in over-aggressive employees. I can't personally sit here and swear I'd have done any different.

On the other hand, it's hard to believe that sharp, alert individuals like William Wivell, Sue Tuckwell and Bert Iseminger would have ho-hummed their way through office while millions upon millions of dollars washed away like so much storm water.

This election shouldn't be about assigning blame or taking out revenge on basically good people who were in over their heads. What the election should be about is the idea that we deserve, and have the opportunity to select, a more watchful and creative set of public stewards.

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