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Leadership? Washington County Commissioners 'ain't going close to it'

June 15, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Given the option of public water at $50 a quarter in 1997, it's doubtful too many people in Zanzibar would have signed up - unless they could have foreseen a cholera outbreak was about to kill more than 100 people.

Likewise, if they have never had a problem with their well water in the past, it's easy to understand why the people and businesses on Old National Pike north of Boonsboro are reluctant to shell out cash for a commodity that for generations has been free.

Last week the Washington County Health Department said water from wells along the Old National Pike water poses a serious public health risk. The next day the same department said the chances of getting sick from the water are slim.

So are we to believe the health department of June 4 (run for your lives!) or the health department of June 5 (ain' no thang)?

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Several factors are likely at work. First, health departments are operating on the correct premise that any time people are clustered together public water and sewer service is a good idea. Second, when health departments try to nudge a public sewer/water project forward, it is never in their best interest to understate the need. That means they may portray the danger to be a bit more dramatic than it actually is.

And finally, when a government employee says something a higher-up doesn't want to hear, the employee is generally leaned on to retract or modify the statement, even if it's true.

A new water-project proposal wasn't what the commissioners wanted to hear. They might lose the votes of people who don't want the pipelines (public water projects haven't been politically popular since the days of Appius Claudius.)

Commissioners President Greg Snook came right out and said of the water project, "I ain't going close to it" unless it's the state pushing the envelope. Translation: Unless the state plays the bad guy and gives me political cover, public health is not a priority.

That's not leadership. A leader would ask the people who are opposed to the project to examine their positions in more detail. It's natural for a perfectly well-meaning person to say his well is fine, so he has no need for public water. But perhaps while his well is fine, the well of his neighbors and his neighbor's kids is not. When you begin to think of the health of your community and not just of you yourself, things can look a bit different.

And even people who have good wells now, may be subject to others people's bad septic systems later. Groundwater and sewage doesn't stop at the property line.

Ultimately, I think the health department's message is that while you shouldn't be panicked, you should certainly be concerned.

Not that it will matter much if the county balks at the public water and sewer project, even with its modest costs.

On that topic, if you're into the sport of charting County Commissioner inconsistencies, this is a good one: One reason against the project, commissioners say, is that they need to keep paying down, not adding to, the county's sewer debt.

Oh? If that's the case, then why is the county about to open a dialogue with state lawmakers so the commissioners can reduce the annual amount they are paying on the sewer debt?

Of course it gets back to the airport. As is, the county won't have the cash flow it needs to make payments on the debt it is about to incur to extend the airport's runway. So it is going to need to rob sewer to pay airport.

Not only are we going to have a whole new raft of airport debt, but the old sewer debt will not be paid back as fast. Thus, the sewer debt is an excuse where a water project is concerned, but it is not a problem where a runway project is concerned.

And meantime, Boonsboro water is exactly the type of project that is going to be lost in the shuffle. Not just for now, but for the next decade. Public health, public safety, public schools and public everything else is going to take a back seat while the commissioners are off chasing jets.

While I agree that the runway extension would be a nice thing to have, water is an essential thing to have. At the very least, it should not become an element of politics.

Last summer we had one of the worst droughts on record, and the last commissioners were so concerned - or said they were so concerned - that they partially banned new housing construction.

Some other folks with real concerns about the county's well-being approached the board and offered to provide a cheap hydrological study of the county. It would have mapped where our water comes from, where it goes and where shortages and pollution were most likely to occur. It would have been a valuable map for planning development and ensuring a safe and adequate water supply even in times of severe drought.

But the commissioners weren't interested. And even after heavy rains restored the water table, the moratorium remained. Turns out, water wasn't the real issue; the real issue was pleasing a bloc of voters who do not favor growth.

In a way, this is to be expected. Water has been a part of politics for centuries, and often with far more sinister intent and gross mismanagement than what we're seeing here.

But the experts at the health department say there is a serious risk that wells will become contaminated and people will get sick. Such a warning should at least stir a little thought and debate. Even a little bit of concern would have been nice.

But because it might cost them a few votes, Washington County's top leadership ain't going close to it.

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