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Chairman agrees growth being stifled

April 12, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

A blunt letter from the state's top economic development official proves the County Commissioners are stifling economic development and growth by annually increasing water and sewer rates, the chairman of the Washington County Water and Sewer Advisory Commission said Monday.

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Clarence Scheer's comments came a day before the County Commissioners were to increase rates by slightly more than the advisory commission has called for.

The county's water and sewer rates, as well as fees to tap into its Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant, scare away manufacturers, Richard C. Mike Lewin wrote to Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook in a March 18 letter.

The letter from Lewin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, was obtained by The Herald-Mail on Friday. It has not been discussed openly by the County Commissioners.

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The county and state are "wasting staff time and resources on industrial recruitment" if the fees deter development, Lewin said.

Lewin said HP Hood, a milk manufacturer, decided not to build an $80 million milk factory in the county because of high tap-in fees.

"That letter does not surprise me in the least," Scheer said.

The commission's concern isn't so much this year's increases as the plan to increase rates each year for another eight years, he said.

"It is the opinion of the (advisory) commission that the commissioners should dig in and support a fundamental plan that proves they are interested in keeping our water and sewer rates competitive," he said.

The advisory commission wants the commissioners to increase the general fund grant to water and sewer funds from $2.3 million this year to $3 million in fiscal 2000.

The Water and Sewer Department does not have to pay back the grants. The general fund money otherwise would be used for such things as law enforcement and education.

At a March 18 meeting, county officials informally agreed to a $2.27 million contribution, and to increase sewer rates by 3 percent and water rates by 2.5 percent, more than was recommended by the advisory commission.

State Sen. Donald Munson, R-Washington, said the letter and meeting are positive developments because it turns a county controversy into a state problem.

"If we can get our sewer situation under control it is going to make us a much hotter item in marketing our area and attracting jobs," he said.

Snook said he was unaware of any company deciding not to move to Washington County solely because of its rates or fees.

Snook said he received the letter and distributed it to the other County Commissioners about two or three weeks ago. He said the letter was not discussed publicly at a commissioners meeting because the county gets many letters.

Washington County Economic Development Commission and the Department of Business and Economic Development personnel will meet this month but no date has been set, a state department spokesman said.

At the meeting, the EDC will explain that the county faces more than $54 million in debt incurred by the Washington County Sanitary Commission before it was taken over by the commissioners in December 1995, said John Howard, EDC director.

While not asking directly for money, the EDC will see what "fiscal things" the state can offer, Howard said. He would not be more specific.

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