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Smaller increases sought in county water, sewer rates

March 13, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

Water and sewer customers could see smaller rate increases this year if the Washington County Commissioners agree to a proposal to use more money from the general fund to balance the water and sewer budgets.

The county's Water and Sewer Advisory Commission is asking the county to contribute $3 million to the Water and Sewer Department budget next year, about $700,000 more than this year.

The county does not expect the money to be paid back, County Administrator Rodney Shoop said.

Under the plan, the average residential customer would pay 70 cents more per month for water and 70 cents more for sewer service, said Greg Murray, director of the Water and Sewer Department.

That's an increase of 2 percent for water and 2.3 percent for sewer.

The commission made the recommendation at Thursday's meeting after looking at 11 options, including one by Budget and Finance Director Debra Bastian that would not increase the general fund contribution.

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Rates instead would increase 3 percent to 4 percent for water and 2 percent to 3 percent for sewer, Murray said.

The commission, however, wanted to keep the rates below the consumer price index, which is about 2.7 percent, said Commission Chairman Clarence Scheer.

The proposed increases are the lowest since the first systemwide hike in 1997. Rates went up 5 percent in fiscal 1998 and 4 percent in 1999, Scheer said.

"We are progressively making headway," he said.

The department cut operating costs by 15.1 percent in fiscal 1997 and 5 percent in 1998, he said.

County Commissioner William J. Wivell said an increase from the general fund is justified because the county now has larger water and sewage capacity for economic development. Wivell sits on the advisory commission.

It would not be fair to make current users pay for an economic development tool that helps future customers, he said. Instead, that should be a general fund expense, he said.

However, Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said it is not fair to city residents who pay county taxes but don't use water and sewer services. The city has its own services.

"If you have a service, the users of that service should pay for that service," Bruchey said Friday. "But my people in the city are subsidizing the service. Now they are subsidizing by 700,000 more dollars."

The commissioners are scheduled to discuss the recommendations next Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in the commissioners meeting room.

The Water and Sewer Department has not submitted its budget for its pretreatment fund, which is a separate fund. This year, the County Commissioners gave $282,000 to that fund.

The public hearing for water and sewer rates will be March 30 at 7 p.m. in the commissioners meeting room.

The County Commissioners are scheduled to adopt the entire budget on May 4.

Decisions made by the now-defunct Washington County Sanitary Commission are blamed for about $53 million in county debt. The county took over the independent Washington County Sanitary District in July 1995 and assumed its debt.

The County Commissioners have been raising rates and making grants from the general fund to the department since the takeover.

Each year since the takeover the county has made a 10-year plan and estimated the size of future rate increases.

In 1997 the 10-year plan called for annual future rate hikes of 9 percent to 10 percent, while last year the projections were for 5 percent to 6 percent increases, Murray said.

The commission is recommending a 2 percent hike in water rates in fiscal 2000, 3 percent in 2001, 4 percent in 2002 and 5 percent in 2003, Scheer said.

For sewer rates the commission is suggesting a 2.5 percent rate hike annually from 2001 to 2010, he said.

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