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Commissioners urge water, sewer hikes

March 19, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

Washington County water and sewer customers could see their rates rise this summer, probably by more than an advisory committee recommended.

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The Washington County Commissioners informally agreed Thursday night to take proposals for a 3 percent sewer hike and a 4 percent water hike to a 7 p.m. public hearing on March 30 in the County Administration Building.

Under the proposal, the average residential customer using 12,000 gallons per quarter would pay 90 cents more per month for sewer and 85 cents more per month for water, said Greg Murray, director of the Water and Sewer Department.

Those proposed rate increases, which were recommended by county staff, would allow the county to take less money from the general fund to balance the water and sewer budgets.

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Under this proposal, the county general fund would contribute $2.27 million to the Water and Sewer Department budget in the fiscal year starting July 1.

This fiscal year the general fund is contributing $2.3 million.

The county's Water and Sewer Advisory Commission had asked the county to raise the general fund contribution to almost $3 million.

Under that proposal, the average residential customer using 12,000 gallons per quarter would pay 70 cents more per month for sewer and 70 cents more per month for water.

Advisory Commission members tried to put themselves in the customers' position instead of focusing on the general fund contribution, Chairman Clarence Scheer said.

"I worry frantically about our retirees," Scheer said. "We have an obligation to manage the money within the guidelines our community can afford."

Scheer said the City of Hagerstown and the county need to cooperate.

Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II has said he wants the city to get a tax rebate if the county continues to use the general fund to balance its water and sewer budgets. The county's general fund includes city residents' tax payments.

Every dollar the 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.

Commissioner John L. Schnebly said his goal is to eliminate the general fund subsidy.

"This thing is a concrete block around every initiative," including school improvements and a new stadium, Schnebly said.

Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger said he didn't think it would be appropriate to increase the general fund subsidy.

Iseminger said there are programs available to help county water and sewer customers truly in need of financial assistance.

If those agencies are short on funding, perhaps the commissioners could help with a contribution, he said.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said he agreed with Scheer that using general fund money makes sense because it constitutes paying for county economic development. Wivell said users shouldn't have to pay for excess capacity at new plants.

Wivell said he only agreed with the other commissioners on the higher proposed user rates and lower general fund subsidy in order to get a proposal to a public hearing.

Wivell said he hopes to persuade his colleagues to go with the advisory commission's recommendation.

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