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Utility ruling not expected before November

July 16, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

BALTIMORE - It remains unclear if Washington County customers who pay City of Hagerstown water and sewer rates are being charged too much for the service, nearly two years after county officials first asked state regulators to weigh the matter.

A hearing to discuss the issue on Thursday at Maryland Public Service Commission headquarters was the first and only scheduled date for oral testimony and arguments before a state hearing examiner before he issues a decision in the case.

The decision, which could either end or prolong the case, is not expected before November.

If the hearing examiner rules in favor of the county, the Public Service Commission could set new rates for the city. If the commission took that step, it would be the first time under the provision on which the county is basing its argument, Michael Dean, an attorney for the Public Service Commission, said Thursday.

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After the hearing, city attorney John Urner said he believed the testimony was "favorable (toward) the city's position" that county customers of the city's system are charged fairly.

County attorney Ronald Decker said the central question in the case remains unanswered for customers of the city's water and sewer system who are outside city limits.

"We can't say the rates are fair," Decker said.

Dean, who was present at the hearing, said in these types of cases witnesses first submit written testimony, and they can then be called for further questioning.

At Thursday's three-hour, question-and-answer session, private consultants for the city and county, a state economist and the city's top financial officer took the stand to testify under oath.

Attorneys and Hearing Examiner Dennis Sober took turns Thursday questioning the witnesses.

The first witness called to the stand was Eric Icart, an economist for the Public Utility Commission. He said he examined the methods the city uses to determine how much to charge customers, and which customers are charged the most.

Icart said the city's rate structure charges the most per gallon to people who use the least amount of water.

Sober asked Icart if the rate structure unfairly increases profits for the city. Icart said it didn't but that it encouraged customers to use as much water as they want, and "we'll go ahead and charge you less."

Under questioning from Decker, Icart said he believed there was a "drawback" with the way the city tallies its expenses, but he said the city's current methods shouldn't be ruled out when the city undertakes a study of its expenses later this year.

City Finance Director Alfred Martin testified about the city's financial practices, and said the city is preparing to study its method of tallying water and sewer expenses.

Martin said he hoped that study would be ready before next spring, when water and sewer rates would be considered again by the City Council.

The study is central to the county's argument, Decker said after the hearing, because the current rate structure is based on studies from 1987 and 1991, too old to reflect how customers would be affected in 2004.

Decker said if the study shows the city is unfairly charging customers in the county, he will ask the Public Service Commission to set fair rates for the city, a role that Dean said is usually left up to the City Council.

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