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Water-sewer study idea does not go far enough

January 30, 2004

The proposal by some members of the Washington County's delegation to General Assembly to study the consolidation of the Hagerstown and Washington County water and sewer systems is a good one, as far as it goes.

Unfortunately, it ignores the chief obstacle to working together - the fact that the systems are controlled by two governments with very different needs and goals.

Until those two governments learn to work better together, each will interpret this merger proposal as a back-door attempt to confiscate its assets.

Despite that, the idea of long-range planning for the county's water and sewer needs makes sense. For example, until recently, county officials were approving permits for new houses that would use wells and septic systems even though no one has any idea whether the groundwater resources are adequate.

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And the discovery of fecal coliforms in well water in the Boonsboro area has raised the possibility of an outbreak of disease like the one that led to a state mandate for new water systems in the Martin's Crossroads area.

And then there's the annexation issue. After the city insisted on requiring those who wanted its sewer service to annex, the county went ahead with a lawsuit, confident the court would settle the issue.

It didn't. Instead, the judge ruled that where previous agreements were in place, the city had to provide service without conditions. Outside that area, however, it was free to demand annexation for service.

That's not good for economic development, because companies want to know up front what their costs will be. The idea that maybe they'd be annexed and maybe they wouldn't isn't what a prospective industry's officials want to hear.

Instead of just studying utility needs, the delegation needs to look at how both governments can work together, with each respecting the other's need and point of view.

Maybe this would require devising a master plan that both would agree to follow. Maybe it would mean studying the possibility of a full-fledged merger. But until the two sets of officials begin to trust each other and understand their different points of view, nothing will happen.

It's up to the delegation to lead the effort to get both sides to use the same map and head in the same direction.

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