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Can't city and county negotiate these issues?

October 16, 2007

You'd have to go to cable's TV Land channel to find a rerun old than the argument Washington County and Hagerstown officials revived this week.

Once again, for the umpteenth time in the last 30 years, the county and the City of Hagerstown are arguing over sewer policy. Once again, there was no meaningful negotiation prior to the start of hostilities.

Last week, Washington County Commissioner William Wivell asked affected county residents to e-mail city council members to protest sewer rate hikes that are higher for users outside the city limits. What residents ought to do is demand that both sets of officials reach a solution to this problem, once and for all.

The ongoing dispute not only affects county residents' rates, but economic development as well.

More than three years ago, the county commissioners went to court over the city's annexation policy, which required industries that wanted city utilities to sign preannexation agreements in case the city borders ever expanded to their sites.


But Judge Fred Thayer ruled that unless there was a previous agreement requiring the city to provide utility service to an area of the county, the city could require developers to sign preannexation agreements.

The issue still isn't resolved, because the county has refused to yield on revenue sharing. Without that, the city won't budge on its preannexation policy, which means that every prospect for the county's Hopewell Valley area faces a potential stumbling block.

In short, because the two governments haven't been able to agree, potential jobs might be lost.

Wivell's latest argument is that the city has allocated the cost of inflation and $200,000 paid to the county for treatment of waste transferred to the county's treatment plant entirely to out-of-city customers.

What's even worse, Wivell said, is that county residents got a 16 percent sewer rate increase, while city residents got only an 8.5 percent boost.

Reached Monday, Mayor Robert Bruchey said that in 2002 the county took the issue of the city-county rate differential to Maryland's Public Service Commission (PSC).

In March 2005, the PSC issued an order saying that the way the city determined its rates was "fair and reasonable."

As for the allocation of the $200,000, Bruchey said that it was covered under the agreement under which city and county lines were connected and that Wivell sat on the negotiating panel.

On Monday, Wivell denied that he had ever agreed that such costs would be allocated to county customers only. He said he would never have approved the deal had there been such a clause.

In fact, Wivell said, because the arrangement reduced sewage going to the city plant - allowing the city to accept new flow - and to shut down a pumping station, a case can be made that the deal saved the city more than $200,000.

In addition, Wivell said that when he first sought a justification for the rate increase, city officials refused to respond until he e-mailed the mayor and said that he would file a Freedom Of Information Act request.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is, and depressingly so. This city-county back-and-forth on sewer issues has gone on for too many years.

Both governments need to negotiate all of these matters - including revenue sharing - so that 10 years from now, we won't be reading about another sewer squabble between the city and county governments.

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