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Official sees break-even point for waste plant

January 10, 1999

Greg LarsenBy SCOTT BUTKI / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




Greg Larsen was given a difficult assignment in October 1997: Market Washington County's controversial, debt-ridden Conococheague Industrial Pretreatment Facility.

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Not only is he doing so, but he is predicting the plant will start breaking even by late 2000, compared to estimates by other county officials that it won't be financially self-sufficient until about 2004. He is more optimistic because the number of customers and amount of revenue are increasing dramatically, he said.

"This is a very manageable situation," said Larsen, 43, of Martinsburg, W.Va.

Larsen said his definition of self-sufficiency includes the plant's debt service. The county has spent about $2.3 million in subsidies on the $9 million plant since it opened in 1994.

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Once he has succeeded in helping the plant become financially self-sufficient, he will return to the county and ask for another marketing assignment, he said.

The Washington County Sanitary District built the plant to spur economic development. It treats and dilutes a variety of industrial wastes before they enter the regular sewage treatment plant.

Washington County dismantled the independent district and created the Washington County Water and Sewer Department in 1995. Decisions by the Sanitary Commission, including construction of the plant, left the county more than $50 million in debt.

Larsen was asked to take on the marketing job by Washington County Administrator Rodney Shoop, he said.

"This was the ultimate challenge," Larsen said. It was a chance to prove his marketing skills and give something back to the community, he said.

With monthly revenue as low as $1,510 at one point in 1997, the pretreatment plant was expected to lose more than $8 million over five years, prompting the commissioners to consider closing it.

Monthly revenue rose to $25,000 after Larsen was hired and it has since gone over the $35,000 mark twice, in February and March 1998, according to records provided by Larsen.

However, the plant needs a monthly revenue of $125,000 to start breaking even, he said. "We still have a long way to go," he said.

The increase in revenue, coupled with a drop in maintenance costs, enabled the commissioners to cut the general fund subsidy of the plant from $830,000 last budget year to $282,000 this budget year.

Recommendations regarding next year's budget will be presented to the County Commissioners in the next few months.

The plant is part of the Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Complex in the Interstate 70/81 Industrial Park northeast of Williamsport.

Larsen was hired in September 1994 to work at the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitor's Bureau as a sales representative. He worked there for two years.

After the bureau privatized, he was left without a government job. He was allowed to stick around to finish coordinating the 135th Commemoration of the Battle of Antietam.

Meanwhile, he heard about the marketing position and decided to apply for it, he said.

Larsen got off to an unusual start at his current position. Former commissioners Ronald L. Bowers and John S. Shank voted against his appointment because the job opening was not publicized.

Bowers said this week that, despite his vote, he likes what Larsen is doing. "I think he's doing a fine job. I just hope the powers that be listen to him," he said.

Like most residents, he had heard all the community outcry about the sewer debt and suggestions that the facility was too expensive and should be shut down, Larsen said.

He knew it would be a difficult assignment, but he wanted to try to face the challenge. And it was tricky at times, he said. "It was one heck of an education," he said.

The plant serves two purposes, he said: It provides a place for businesses to take their materials and it helps draw companies to the area, he said.

There is only one other government-owned pretreatment plant in the Eastern United States and only a handful in the entire nation, Larsen said.

Businesses generally have two options for pretreatment of industrial wastewater, such as that containing oil and metals, Larsen said. They can do their own pretreatment, which is expensive and means dealing with changing environmental regulations, he said. Or they can take it somewhere and pay somebody else, he said.

Some past and current County Commissioners consider it a mistake for the government to have even gone into the industrial pretreatment business, but the question the Washington County Commissioners are presently wrestling with is what to do with the plant now that it is built and costing taxpayers money.

Whether the plant's construction was a mistake or not, Larsen's challenge is the same: how to attract enough customers to make it profitable.

Before he was hired by the Washington County Commissioners, there was essentially no marketing of the plant, he said.

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