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Rebate sought on sewer subsidy

March 16, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

The city of Hagerstown deserves a tax rebate if Washington County is going to continue using the general fund, which includes city residents' tax payments, to balance the financially troubled water and sewer budgets, Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey said Monday.

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Hagerstown residents pay county taxes but don't use county water and sewer services. The city has its own water and sewer department.

The county's Water and Sewer Advisory Commission on Thursday will recommend to the County Commissioners that another $3 million contribution from the general fund be made to the county water and sewer funds.

About 28 percent, or $840,000, of that $3 million contribution would be from city residents, Bruchey said. The mayor said he wants the commissioners to reimburse the city for part or all of the subsidy.

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"I am not happy," Bruchey said. "It was bad enough before."

City residents should not be subsidizing a county service, he said.

The county has given about $9.25 million in grants to the Water and Sewer Department since taking over from the now defunct county Sanitary Commission in July 1995.

The advisory commission has not decided on a contribution recommendation for the pretreatment fund for fiscal year 2000, Water and Sewer Director Gregory Murray said.

The pretreatment contribution for the 1999 budget year was $282,000, bringing to $2.6 million the total county grant.

The county does not expect the grants, which may exceed $12 million after July 1, to be paid back, County Administrator Rodney Shoop said.

Every dollar the County Commissioners spend on the department from the general fund is one less dollar the county can spend on education, law enforcement and other areas of government.

The current water and sewer contribution for fiscal year 1999, which ends June 30, is $2.3 million.

The two Washington County Commissioners on a joint city-county committee looking at changes in tax rebates agreed to Bruchey's request to consider the idea.

Commissioners William J. Wivell and Bert L. Iseminger said, however, they were leaning against the idea.

"That idea doesn't fly," Iseminger said.

The County Commissioners won't give Bruchey an answer until at least late March, Iseminger said. The committee is also looking at other rebate areas, and at the possibility of future consolidation of the permits and parks and recreation departments, Iseminger said.

The city regularly receives rebates from the county for police and parks. This year's rebate is $618,393 for police and $238,119 for parks.

Each year the county gives back money to the city to compensate it for the fact that residents pay property taxes to the city and the county for services provided by both governments.

Since taking over the sanitary commission, the Washington County Commissioners have raised rates and made grants from the general fund to the department. The Sanitary Commission accrued $54.8 million in county debt prior to the takeover.

Supporters of the idea of general fund contributions, including Wivell and Iseminger, say they make sense because it constitutes paying for county economic development. It would be unfair to make current users pay higher rates for new plants that give the county more water and sewer capacity, Wivell said.

Economic development helps the whole county, not just areas outside the city limits, Iseminger said.

"To say the city should not pay their fair share of that ... I would not agree to that in any way, shape or form," he said.

Bruchey disagreed. Most of the new jobs, such as Prime Outlets at Hagerstown, brought to the county through economic development efforts are outside the city limits, he said.

The general fund contributions allow the county to keep water and sewer rate hikes low. The proposed water and sewer increases of 2 percent and 2.3 percent would be the lowest hikes since the systemwide hike of 1997.

As the county gets new users the general fund contribution should shrink, not grow, Bruchey said.

The advisory commission made its recommendation last Thursday after hearing 11 recommendations, including one by Budget and Finance Director Debra Bastian.

Bastian said the contribution amount for water and sewer should remain at $2.3 million and the rate hike should be about 3 percent each for water and sewer.

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