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Berkeley water districts join

June 01, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - At the beginning of next year, Berkeley County's three water districts will merge under an agreement approved Thursday by the County Commission.

The merger of the Opequon and Hedgesville public service districts into the Berkeley County Public Service District will take effect Jan. 1, 2001. Details of the new district's operation must be set by June 30, 2001, six months of the merger, County Commission said.

The merger, which does not cover residents within Martinsburg's city limits, has been a long-standing and often controversial proposal. Commission President D. Wayne Dunham said a merger study was done in 1987.

At a public hearing on May 10, merger opponents from the Berkeley County district wondered what might happen to their rates and their service under a single countywide authority.

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But all three County Commissioners on Thursday said the merger will be beneficial.

"I think this is going to make our whole Public Service District in Berkeley County a stronger unit," Dunham said. "We'll be going to Charleston with one voice."

Charlotte Lane, chairwoman of the state's Public Service Commission, which regulates water and sewer operations, spoke similar words when she was in Berkeley County two weeks ago.

"I have been urging consolidation because this is a growth area. The residents of this area will have better service," she said in an interview then. Lane said it would be easier to extend water to unserved parts of the county if there were a single district in charge.

According to estimates supplied by Lane, consolidation of the three districts could mean lower rates for Opequon and Hedgesville customers, but not for those in the Berkeley County district.

A chart shows that Berkeley County customers currently pay, on average, $15.60 a month. The rates are $27.10 in Opequon and $24.70 in Hedgesville.

After a large water improvement project mostly affecting Martinsburg, rates would have risen to $16.50 in Berkeley County and $34 in Hedgesville, the chart shows. Opequon rates would have stayed the same.

Under a three-way merger, monthly rates in all three districts will be about $22.50, according to the chart.

There are an estimated 5,100 customers in the Berkeley County district, 3,700 in Opequon and 1,200 in Hedgesville.

The County Commission had several possibilities to consider, such as merging just two districts, including the countywide sewer district in with the water districts or keeping the three water districts separate.

The boards of the Berkeley County and Hedgesville districts last month submitted a plan to merge their districts first, then add the Opequon district later on.

Commissioner John Wright, who favors combining the three districts, had his mind made up before last week's commission meeting, when a vote on the merger was expected. Wright was out of town then because his wife was ill, but he left an affidavit stating his vote.

This week, Wright said he feels the same way.

"We owe a debt of gratitude to our (water district) directors. They've become close friends over the years. ... ," Wright said. "If I would listen to my heart, sentimentalism and nostalgia would control. But I have to listen to my head."

The County Commission will appoint the board for the new merged district, which will be called the Berkeley County Public Service District.

One of the questions tied to the merger has been whether it would mean fewer jobs. Dunham said the opposite is true - there might be more jobs.

Commissioner Robert Burkhart said the merger brings the county full circle to where it was 50 years ago, when there was just one water district.

The commission's order for the merger states that it "will permit a more efficient and effective method of planning for and implementing the provision of water service to the public; will result in a greater ability to compete for the resources necessary to the implementation of water service to the public; will permit greater efficiencies and cost effective service to the citizens of Berkeley County; and will ultimately results in a fairer rate structure for the people of this county."

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