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Water, sewer customers may get 1-year reprieve

March 21, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

If Washington County gets $500,000 for debt reduction as proposed under a state plan, water and sewer rate hikes would be suspended for the fiscal year, the Washington County Commissioners learned Tuesday.

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"The philosophy was that it would nice to give people a break," Water and Sewer Director Greg Murray said.

The break on rate hikes for residential and industrial customers would be for one year only. After that, rates would be increased each year for nine years, starting in July 2001, Murray said.

The county has increased rates in each of the last four years.

Murray has recommended an increase in water and sewer hookup costs of $250 each year for the next three years. For example, the current sewer hookup fee of $2,750 would increase to $3,500 by July 2003.

If the state plan gains legislative approval, it is projected that the $52.3 million water and sewer debt would drop to $19 million by fiscal year 2010, Murray said. If the plan doesn't make it through the legislature, the debt will be at $24 million in 2010, he said.

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If the county doesn't get the money from a legislative package that also may include funds for a new stadium for the Hagerstown Suns, then sewer rates would increase by about an average of 2 percent in fiscal 2001, which begins July 1, he said.

The average residential customer would pay about $8 more per year for sewer service if the rates were increased, he said.

The county has 1,500 water customers and 8,000 sewer customers, he said.

If the rate hike is suspended for this year, sewer rates probably would increase by about 3 percent in each of the next nine years, Murray said.

Water rates would not increase in the next two years, but would increase by 2 percent in each of the following eight years, he said.

Some of the money from the $500,000 would come from a proposed doubling of the county hotel-motel tax.

Putting $500,000 a year toward the debt would reduce the amount of debt service and lessen the need for rate increases, Murray said. That does not mean state money would be used to subsidize rates, he said.

A public hearing on the rates will be held April 4 at 7 p.m. in the County Commissioners meeting room.

The hearing will be on a proposal to not raise rates if the state funds are received, and to hike sewer rates by 2 percent if the money isn't available.

The vote to take that proposal to public hearing was unanimous. The decision on whether to raise rates will be made later this year.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said "I was pleased to see some good news today." After the vote Wivell testified in Annapolis in favor of the legislation

Last year the commissioners increased rates by 3 percent for sewer service and 2.5 percent for water.

The proposed budget also includes more general fund subsidies.

The county has given the department about $12 million in subsidies since taking over the financially troubled Washington County Sanitary District in 1994.

This year the county provided about $2.62 million in subsidies. Of that, $2.03 million has gone to the sewer fund, $240,000 to the water fund and $350,000 to the pretreatment fund, according to budget documents.

The proposed budget calls for decreasing the amount to $2.54 million. The sewer subsidy would be $1.927 million, the water subsidy would be $263,000 and pretreatment would remain at $350,000, Murray said.

Commissioners Bert L. Iseminger and John L. Schenbly praised Murray and his department's staff members, saying the cost-saving moves they have made are appreciated.

"You guys have done a great job at controlling costs and maintaining all these funds," Iseminger said.

"I don't think it's an emergency anymore. We have a controlled plan in place," Schnebly said.

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