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New board hoping to avoid suit with city

December 04, 2002|by TARA REILLY and JULIE GREEN

tarar@herald-mail.com

julieg@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The newly sworn-in Washington County Commissioners said Tuesday they hope they can drop the $2.5 million lawsuit the former board filed against the City of Hagerstown on Monday and instead meet with city officials to work out an agreement over the sewer annexation dispute.

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner and four of the five City Council members said they were hopeful the matter could be resolved before it proceeds in court. Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he was not optimistic, calling the lawsuit "ludicrous."

"It would be a travesty for two governments to go to court and have a court decide these issues," Breichner said. "That's what we're elected for, to make these decisions."

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Breichner said politicians are supposed to be proficient in the art of compromise.

The commissioners who made up the former board allege in the suit that the city breached a sewer service agreement into which both governments had entered, and were asking for $2.5 million in losses and damages, plus court costs.

"If we can avoid this suit and back out of it, that's best for everyone," Commissioner Doris J. Nipps said. "Everybody has to discuss this and try to come to some resolution."

She said the commissioners want to meet with city officials to reach an understanding on the sewer service agreement.

"Let's not gather our toys and go home," she said. "Let's just try to get this thing worked out."

Commissioner John C. Munson said he'd like to avoid the suit.

"I wish that it hadn't happened," he said.

Munson said discussions with the city might be beneficial.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said he has been meeting with city officials behind the scenes to work out the dispute and plans to do whatever he can to put an end to the suit.

"I think every board member is trying to avoid the suit," Kercheval said. "We really are."

Nipps, Munson and Kercheval were sworn in as new commissioners Tuesday. They are serving with returning commissioners Gregory I. Snook and William J. Wivell, who also were sworn in Tuesday.

Wivell said he hoped the county and city could come to a compromise before the suit progresses.

He said he did not think the lawsuit would harm the relationship between the two governments because city and county officials have been meeting to discuss the issue.

Councilman N. Linn Hendershot said "mini-steps" were made during a meeting Monday with Wivell. The two sides will meet again next Monday. If they can't compromise, Hendershot suggested the matter be decided by a task force that would include an independent mediator.

In the suit, the county asks that a judge order the city to abide by the terms of a 2001 amendment to the sewer agreement between the city and the county. The amendment addresses flows under a proposed connection of the city's and county's systems.

The county claims it has lost money because the city has not signed the amendment that would join the systems.

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 customers who live outside the city to annex their properties to the city to receive new water and sewer service connections, officials have said.

Metzner said there was blame to go around for the matter not being resolved earlier.

"I think the city can do a lot about it, if the City Council could compromise. Without compromise, I think this council is going to be known for referendums and lawsuits," Metzner said.

While Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said he was optimistic the matter could be resolved, he said he wasn't "gullible."

"I think it's ridiculous that they asked for $2.5 million," Aleshire said. "I think that it's sad that they're hiding behind some mandate to steal $3 million out of the county general tax fund and that's not enough."

Aleshire was referring to the estimated $3 million per year the county uses from its general fund to subsidize its sewer, water and pre-treatment funds, including paying down debt. General fund revenues include taxes paid by city residents.

Councilwomen Carol N. Moller and Penny May Nigh said they were hopeful the issue could be settled with the new commissioners on board.

Former Commissioner John L. Schnebly said all of the previous commissioners came to a consensus on filing suit and that the newly elected commissioners were aware it was going to happen.

"They were there at all the (closed) meetings, and no one stood up and said, 'Please don't do this,'" Schnebly said.

Schnebly and former Commissioners Vice President Paul L. Swartz said Tuesday the main concern of the previous board was that the city would force residents in the joint sewer service area to annex their properties into the city to receive the service.

Schnebly and Swartz said both governments should hold discussions about which properties get annexed, a point that has been rejected by the city.

"We consider the issue of the expansion of the City of Hagerstown's borders and the potential development on either side of the border to be the business of both governments," Schnebly said.

Swartz said if an agreement isn't reached, the city and county might lose a $650,000 state grant awarded to both governments to complete the interconnector of sewer lines.

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