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Panel reports on progress of sewer, water plan

December 09, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

Members of a joint city-county committee studying whether to merge water and sewer systems briefed the state's top water management employee Wednesday on their work and asked for financial help.

"I know why I've been invited," James L. Hearn, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Water Management Administration, said during the meeting.

Hearn said he didn't know if the city and county would succeed in getting money from his department for their projects but was pleased with what he heard at the meeting in Hagerstown.

"It is clear to me that not only have you made some good positive steps but you are looking toward the future," Hearn said. "We have made great strides."

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Hearn has urged the city and county governments to work together to find ways to deal with the county's $52.3 million water and sewer debt. The debt came from decisions made by the now defunct Washington County Sanitary Commission.

While there is cooperation now, that was not the case in the past, Hearn said.

"Everyone knows it was like dealing with two different counties," Hearn said.

"We are talking and we are making eye contact these days," Commissioner John L. Schnebly joked. It was the first time Hearn has met with city-county officials in Hagerstown since Schnebly and three new commissioners were elected in November 1998.

Schnebly and Washington County Water and Sewer Director Gregory Murray told Hearn about an April agreement to merge sewage treatment operations for 111 residential households and 20 commercial properties along Sharpsburg Pike. The state helped pay for switching treatment to the county's underused Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Next the committee wants to transfer the sewage flow of some properties, including the Centre of Hagerstown, from the city to the county as part of a contract between the two governments. The properties are west of Interstate 81 and north of U.S. 40.

That change may cost up to $1 million but the county is asking for about $400,000 from Hearn's department, Murray said.

If the plan works they will be able to transfer up to 200,000 gallons daily to the county's plant, increasing plant revenues, he said. The customers would still pay the city, which would then pay an undetermined amount to the county, he said.

The plan has not been voted on by the Hagerstown City Council or the Washington County Commissioners.

The plan would reduce city upgrade costs and operational costs, including those for a city pumping station which would be abandoned under the plan, Murray said after taking the task force members and Hearn on a tour of the area.

The committee's goal is to explore ways the city and county can merge sewage operations without incurring new expenses for either government or rate hikes for customers.

The county spends more than $2 million a year from its general fund to subsidize the water and sewer department.

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