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City, county spar over sewer hook-up costs

August 29, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County's sewer connection fee for new users has gone up, and county officials said Wednesday the City of Hagerstown's insistence on changing one word in the city-county sewer service agreement is to blame.

New county customers in the joint sewer service area will now pay a $2,800 hook-up fee, up from $2,100. The rate change is effective immediately, Washington County Commissioners Vice President Paul L. Swartz said.

County officials said the increase was necessary to make up for money the county lost while waiting for the city to sign an amendment to the sewer agreement that would connect the city and county's sewer systems.

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"That's an asinine statement," City Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said. "They understand that amendment even less than I had thought."

The city has not yet signed the amendment, Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said.

The connection would save both governments $1.5 million over 10 years through the consolidation of services, an increase in customers and other measures, city and county officials said.

Swartz said the lack of action on the city's part is damaging to the city-county relationship and to the taxpayers.

"You guys are holding a million and half from us and from you," Swartz said of the city. "What it is doing is destroying our relationship that we built up. We had a good working relationship."

"That's a complete political statement to get people to think it's the city's fault that they (county) built a system that they can't afford," Aleshire said.

County Water and Sewer Director Greg Murray said the county had expected the city to approve the connection of sewer systems and, in anticipation of the increased revenue from the joint service, lowered the new user connection rate to $2,100 for the 2002 fiscal year.

Without the amendment in place, the county lost about $150,000 because of the lowered rate, Murray said.

"The county waited for a year for them to sign it," Murray said. "A year later and it still hasn't been signed."

Breichner said he understands why the county raised the rate for new county users and said the amendment would benefit the city and the county.

"It was definitely a financial advantage to both parties, but at this point, the City Council has balked at that," Breichner said.

"We just don't see it the same way," Aleshire said of the mayor's statements.

Aleshire said the county is trying to give the city a bad name for not helping to bail the county out of its several million dollar sewer debt.

"It's not the city's fault that they can't afford their own sewer system," Aleshire said. "And it's not our obligation ... to bail them out."

He questioned why the county lowered the new user connection fee when it's facing the sewer debt. He said the county should have raised the rate.

"The cost of bubble gum goes up, and so does the cost of sewer," Aleshire said. "That's just the cost of doing business."

Councilmembers Penny May Nigh, Carol N. Moller and N. Linn Hendershot could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he had no comment.

Approval of the amendment has been on hold because some city and county officials disagree on whether wording in the agreement should be changed so that the city can require non-city residents to annex their properties to the city to receive new water and sewer service connections, officials have said.

The agreement contains a phrase that the city "shall" accept new sewer customers from areas outside the city. Aleshire has said the word "shall" means the city can't refuse service to properties outside city limits.

Aleshire has said "shall" must be changed to "may" in the sewer agreement to make the agreement annexation neutral.

"That stalemate caused us not to enter into that agreement," Breichner said.

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