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Surgery and sewer rates

April 28, 1999

A Maryland official who claimed that Washington County's high sewer rates made state efforts to bring manufacturers here a waste of time is now working with local officials to try to fix the problem. The help is greatly appreciated, but we suspect it will take the General Assembly to create a permanent solution.

Last month Richard C. Mike Lewin, Maryland Secretary of Business and Economic Development, criticized the county's utility rate structure in a letter sent to Commissioners' President Greg Snook.

Lewin said the county had lost a chance to have HP Hood, a milk manufacturer, build an $80 million plant here because the county's hook-up fees, first quoted at $2.7 million, then later dropped to $900,000, were still nine times higher than the nearest competitor. Until rates come down, Lewin said, trying to recruit other manufacturers is a waste of time.

Lewin and county officials met Monday in Baltimore and proposed that the county create a reserve fund to keep hook-up fees low and work on removing state restrictions on piping waste into the Conococheague pre-treatment plant.

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But creating a reserve fund may be easier said than done, since the commissioners already tap the general fund for more than $2 million a year to subsidize rates. Hagerstown Mayor Robert Bruchey is already grousing about city residents' share of that bill, which he says doesn't benefit his constituents.

The other problem is that getting more customers for the plant will require laying more pipe, which would mean taking on more debt before there's any offsetting revenue.

We believe the county needs a new revenue source to pay down the debt and make it possible to waive or reduce hook-up fees for firms with high-paying jobs. One possibility is using some gaming commission funds for that purpose, while another would be to raise the state sales tax by a penny, then rebate the new revenues to the counties in proportion to their citizens' contributions.

Either approach would spark a battle, but at some point state and county officials must acknowledge that it's going to take major surgery, as opposed to a band-aid, to cure the county's financial ills.

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