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A minor miracle we didn't expect

February 19, 1999

In a development which I thought was about as likely as Ken Starr sharing a laugh with Bill Clinton, the City of Hagerstown and Washington County have agreed on the outline of a joint sewer project.

To those who don't care about sewer stories unless they involve big rate increases or a big mess of goo bubbling up in your back yard, you ought to pay attention anyway, because the county is still spending $2 million in general fund monies on its multi-million water-and-sewer debt load.

That's cash we could use in lots of other places - for the schools and for economic-development incentives, among other things - and anything that brings us closer to county solvency, the better off this community is.

The plan calls for 111 residential users and 20 commercial customers, all located south of Oak Ridge Drive on the Sharpsburg Pike, would be shifted from the Hagerstown plant, which currently treats their sewage, to the county's under-utilized Conococheague plant.

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Though county rates for sewer service are generally higher, these new residential customers would actually see rates go down, though not a lot, while the commercial customers would see rates rise by 3 to 20 percent, depending on volume.

The whole thing depends of getting a state grant for about $500,000, which shouldn't be a problem because Dane Bauer, deputy director of the Water Management Administration told me last September that if the two sides could get together, "we told them we would help to finance an engineering solution."

General Assembly delegation chairman Bob McKee has set up a meeting with J.L. Hearn, the top man at Water Management, for Friday, Feb. 19 at noon. Unfortunately, because this section is preprinted on Friday at noon, then inserted into the Sunday paper on Saturday night, I won't be able to report on what happened until next week.

Getting to this point - and everyone involved emphasizes that the deal is not done yet - took a tremendous amount of effort.

It began last February, when city and county officials gathered to hear their staffs' proposals for everything from limited cooperation to a full-fledged merger.

But during that meeting, Counculman Lew Metzner got restless, and asked why the group was trying to re-invent the wheel. Staffers who'd spent months preparing the various models slumped in their seats, silent;y disappointed by the turn of events.

But then Commissioner Jim Wade threw the sinking proposal a lifeline, saying that instead of talking full-blown mergerm, the staf concentrate on one simple question- how to get some city flow to the underutilitzed coiunty plant without harming the city, financially or otherwise.

Each government appointed one elected official and one staffer. The county began with Wade, then replaced him with Commissioners' President Gerg Snook. In the new ciunty board's term, less than six weeks old, Johnb Schnebly has taken over.

And while those involved have praised Greg Murray, the county's sewer chief and Ric Thomas, his counterpart at the city, there's agreement that Schnebly's previous relationship with city officials - he was a city councilmember from 1989-1993 - has helped to move things along.

According to Murray, it also helped that the Sharpsburg Pike area to be served was originally a joint city-county project, with the city treating waste gathered by the county's collection system. That made it easy to hold the line on residential rates, Murray said.

Schnebly downplayed his own role, and emphasized that the agreement, such as it is, is still more of a concept than a formal document.

But he did acknowledge that his previous role in city gopvernment didn't hurt.

"It's going to the table with a certain amount of respect for the other person's position," he said.

To get things accomplished, "Yiou have to establish a trust among the parties. First and foremost that's what you have to do to get things done."

All right, maybe it isn't the parting of the Red Sea, but for those of us who've watched the two governments treat each other with scorn for the past two decades, it's an extremely welcome development, for which all parties involved deserve a big pat on the back.

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