Can Bowers now claim the 90s sewer upheaval as a good thing?

November 13, 2005|By Tim Rowland

In next year's county elections, might a couple of the lower flying Washington County Commissioners glance up to see Ron Bowers in their rear view mirrors?

Don't rule it out, especially if history runs down and pulverizes his greatest negative, that being an overwhelming sewer debt that dogged the county through the '90s.

The county's high growth rate of the past five years has been good to Bowers, and not just because he's dabbling in real estate.

A decade ago, when the county was plodding along at 1 percent growth a year, the county's sewer department - then an independent entity - ran up a $54 million debt through what most people called a massive program of overbuilding. Big pipes handled only a trickle of flow, grand, mostly unused capacity was added in the form of the new, Conococheague treatment plant and the gamble of an industrial waste pre-treatment plant to lure manufacturing failed to pay off.


For a half-dozen years, there was no way to justify the expense. Well, no way for anyone not named Ron Bowers to justify the expense. Bowers never wavered, never apologized. He said it was normal for capital projects to run up big debts and that when the county actually did begin to grow for real we would in fact be thankful for what would become our visionary infrastructure.


While it may stretch things to say that all the sewer department's decisions were fiscally prudent, it's beginning to become difficult to argue that Bowers wasn't at least half right. Maybe even two thirds. The industrial pre-treatment plant was a flop, but few would make the case these days that the Conococheague plant and the big lines along Hopewell road are not good things.

Make no mistake, the sewer department needed to be reigned in, or who knows where the borrowing and spending would have stopped. And doubtless, some local projects and programs suffered because the county was forced to throw all it's spare cash into repaying the debt.

But time has done a couple of interesting things. Most obvious is the growth. Suddenly the city is out of capacity and tainted by several episodes of partially treated flow escaping into the Antietam Creek. And the only good way developments to the east can tap in - including the new hospital project - is to divert city flow to the Conococheague plant to the west.

That flow transfer, of course, is still a work in progress, but it seems likely, if not inevitable.

Another offshoot of growth has been a free flow of new tax money into the county treasury. Airport aside, County Administrator Rod Shoop has promoted good fiscal discipline in the county, which continues to whittle away at the sewer debt and has quietly salted away upwards of $20 million in cash reserves in preparation for times that may not always be so good.

Ten years ago, the county's $54 million was close to half of the county's annual budget. In fiscal 2006, the county budget for all funds increased $41 million in one year. What used to be real money is hardly a blip on the radar screen today.

More than anything, however, it was the fury over the sewer debt that cost Bowers his job. And it would take someone who didn't know him very well to figure that Bowers hasn't been keeping track of events with an eagle eye.

I don't know whether he'd run again, but if he does, there are three ways the sewer debt could play out: 1. People are still angry at Bowers, even if they don't quite remember why. 2. People will conclude that it may have been irresponsible to spend that kind of money at the time, but since it all worked out relatively well, no harm no foul. 3. People will enthusiastically embrace someone who clearly had a vision in the mid '90s of what the future would bring.

If you think No. 2 is the correct answer, you are probably right. If the affairs of sewer are not necessarily a positive for Bowers, they are nowhere near the negative they once were.

Besides, while Bowers' wounds have been healing, the sitting commissioners have developed some scratches of their own. Three commissioners can expect scant support from anyone living within a five-mile radius of the Mellot Estates quarry, which they recently approved for expansion against the planning commission's wishes.

The county's downzoning hasn't earned friends among those who earn their living in the housing industry. And the airport is almost universally unloved among the nonbusiness community. Surely a few people noted the bankruptcy of Independence Air out of Dulles, and also noted that it was its business model of using small, regional jets - the same model Washington County is hanging its hat on - that led to its downfall.

If Bowers - the consummate insider - runs, he will be able to cast himself as an outsider carrying the banner of reform and change. Who ever thought they would live to see that? Even more curious, he might even be able to run on the platform of, "I was the face of the Washington County sewer system." Even in politics, that's about as weird as it gets.

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