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On sewer battle, county delegation is missing in action

September 29, 1998

Bob MaginnisIt was less than a week before the Sept. 15 primary, but instead of trying to improve his chances of getting a seat on the county board by knocking on a few more doors, City Councilmember Bill Breichner came by to talk to me about sewers. It's an important subject which is usually of little interest to citizens unless a) the toilet backs up, or b) rates increase.

Rates have gone up for customers of Washington County systems in the past several years, as a result of the county commissioners' 1989 decision to ignore their consultant's advice and build a new sewage treatment facility. Billed as an economic-development tool, the plant wasn't marketed to industry, and rates weren't increased in a timely fashion.

As a result, the debts mounted. They top $50 million today, in system with fewer than 10,000 customers. To cope, the county is contributing $2 million in general-fund money each year and will have to increase customers' rates through 2006.

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Barring a $50 million gift from somebody like Bill Gates, there doesn't appear to be any other answer, unless, of course, the city and county could combine forces.

State officials said as much a year ago, noting that the city was about to add capacity at a time when the county system had plenty to spare. State officials didn't mandate a merger, but said in August 1997 that a little cooperation would go a long way toward getting the state to let loose some grant dollars for future projects.

A year later, not much has happened, although the city and county have been talking since February, and the state may finally be running out of patience.

In August, Dane Bauer, deputy director of the Maryland Water Management Administration, told me the two governments had been asked to come up with a plan for cooperation within six months.

To encourage them to cooperate, Bauer said they were told that the state would help finance an "engineering solution" to the problems of cooperation.

It's important to remember that nobody is talking about a full-blown merger of systems. When scenarios for those were presented in February, elected officials' eyes glazed over, and they agreed to tackle a simpler question instead: How can we get some city flow to the county's Conococheague plant without hurting the city in the process?

Breichner said the study group tried, but couldn't get the numbers to work, in part because a straight transfer of city customers to the county would mean require getting citizens to willingly accept rates higher than they're paying now.

To solve that problem, the groups began talking about a bulk rate. In one scenario, Breichner said, the city talked about transferring 50,000 gallons of flow per day from the city's western edge.

"The kicker was, to get that load, they had to construct two new sections of line. The cost of the one was $556,000 and the other would have cost $300,000, or roughly $860,000 total to transfer that capacity," Breichner said.

The problem for county officials was, Breichner said, that using the bulk rate would barely cover the county's operating costs, and would provide nothing toward the their capital cost.

Another project discussed was the new Centre at Hagerstown, a shopping center that will be built on 416 acres west of the city on U.S. 40. That fell through, he said, because the county wanted the developer to put in the pipes. By annexing, the center will not only get the city's cheaper rate, but will also be reimbursed eventually for its $1.5- to $2 million investment in piping through a mechanism called Tax Increment Financing.

Another problem, Breichner says, is that there might be a legal challenge from customers of one area, like Maugansville, if the city attempted to arbitrarily shift them to the county.

So does that mean there's nothing that can be done? Not necessarily, Breichner said.

The agreements between the two governments could be reviewed, he said, and some smaller issues ought to be simple to negotiate, like the proposal to have the city do joint billing for areas like Halfway or operate water systems in places like Cascade on a contract basis.

If I understand Breichner correctly - and he's got a 35-year head start in utility management on me - the problem is the same one cited by former Mayor Steve Sager is his debates with County Commissioner Ron Bowers. To get the flow, the county has to invest in pipe, but to get the customers, it has to guarantee them a rate that won't allow the county to recover the costs of the pipe it lays.

Somebody's got to change the terms of this debate. The most obvious candidate is state government, which could provide a grant for piping in exchange for city/county cooperation. And who better to help achieve those ends than Washington County's representatives to the state legislature, three of whom are unopposed in the Nov. 3 general election. Citizens can only hope they'll step in and provide assistance on this vital county issue.

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