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County, state work at attracting business

April 26, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

The Washington County Commissioners should establish a reserve fund to keep sewer tap-in and usage costs low enough to attract high-paying manufacturers, Maryland's top economic development official said Monday.

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The state, meanwhile, will try to find ways to eliminate some regulations governing the county's Conococheague Industrial Pretreatment Facility, said Mike Lewin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

Those were two of the ideas to come out of a Monday meeting between state and county officials in Baltimore. Lewin had requested the meeting in an effort to find ways to make the county more attractive to manufacturing companies.

The county is wrestling with more than $50 million in debt incurred by the Washington County Sanitary Commission before it was taken over by the Washington County Commissioners in December 1995.

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Among those expenses was the construction of the Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant and the pretreatment plant, which together cost about $27 million.

"We have inherited a bad situation, a (wastewater) plant that was too large and too expensive for its time," Lewin said. "It is a big problem. It won't go away easily."

Lewin said he called for the meeting after speaking with the treasurer of HP Hood, a milk manufacturer. The official told him the sole reason that Hood decided not to build an $80 million milk plant in Washington County was the high tap-in fees.

Lewin said St. Paul-based Ecolab also decided to build an $18 million manufacturing facility in Berkeley County, W.Va., because of the high water, sewer and pretreatment costs in Washington County.

Ecolab on April 13 announced it would build a 200,000-square-foot plant across from the Quebecor Printing plant on W.Va. 9 between Martinsburg and Charles Town, W.Va.

When Hood first contacted Washington County about building a factory, it was told tap-in fees would run $2.7 million, Lewin said. The company later was told it could be charged $900,000, but that cost was nine times higher than that of the nearest competitor, he said.

Once he heard that news from HP Hood and Ecolab he felt it was time to "catalyze something" and get the county and state working seriously toward solving problems, Lewin said.

In a March 18 letter to Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, Lewin said the county was "wasting staff time and resources on industrial recruitment in Washington County" because county water and sewer fees and costs were scaring away manufacturers.

After Monday's meeting, Lewin said he was feeling more optimistic. The meeting was attended by Snook, Commissioner William J. Wivell, state Delegate Chris Shank, R-Washington, state Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington, and other county and state officials.

"We addressed both short- and long-term solutions so the county can grow out of its problem that this group of commissioners inherited several times over," Lewin said. They will begin meeting monthly on these plans, he said.

Snook was unavailable for comment Monday. Other county officials said Snook had been chosen as the spokesman for the group regarding the meeting.

Lewin said members of the economic development department will meet with the Maryland Department of the Environment to see what can be done about removing some conditions from a state loan, including a rule prohibiting companies from directly piping into the county's pre-treatment plant.

While the county is not competitive in some areas, it is with businesses that need oily water processed at the pre-treatment plant, Lewin said. Therefore, he said, plans are for a joint county-state marketing campaign to try to attract manufacturers that use a lot of oily water.

The more customers the county can get for its plants, the sooner it can get out of debt, Lewin said.

Lewin said he did not make any recommendations to the county about the more immediate question of sewer rates and fees.

The county's proposed budget called for a $2.27 million general fund contribution, but for a 3 percent increase in sewer rates and a 2.5 percent increase in water rates, higher than the increases recommended by the Washington County Water and Sewer Advisory Commission.

Clarence Scheer, advisory commission chairman, has cited Lewin's letter as evidence that the county's rate hikes are scaring away companies and that larger grants should instead be made from the general fund. Scheer was invited to Monday's meeting but was out of town.

The County Commissioners are scheduled to adopt the budget at a May 4 meeting.

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