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Letters to the Editor

November 14, 2009

Williamsport officials must be held accountable for rate hikes



To the editor:

If you are a resident of Williamsport, before you turn on your faucet or flush your toilet, you will soon owe Williamsport almost $80 every three months, and this does not include the additional fees for your use of water and the treatment of sewage.

Future rate increases and high electric bills are on the horizon and it may soon be too expensive to live in Williamsport.

It's no secret that every municipality across the U.S., Maryland and Washington County is in need of water and sewer infrastructure repairs - and Williamsport is at the top of this list.

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However, there is a responsibility assigned to all elected officials and to their respective offices to be diligent, effectively manage the costs, and to set spending limits and priorities.

According to the Williamsport charter with regards to power and duties, it clearly states it is the sole power of the office of mayor that has "complete supervision of the financial administration of town government. The mayor shall supervise the distribution of all money and have control over all expenditures to assure that all budget expenditures are not exceeded."

A Herald-Mail story dated Oct. 26 ("Hikes in water rates likely for towns," page A1) quoted Mayor James G. McCleaf II as stating the water/sewer fund suffered losses of $60,000 and $80,000 over the last two fiscal years.

As a former Williamsport town councilman, I was assigned to the Water/Sewer Committee from 2005 to early 2009.

I consistently urged and suggested routine cost-saving initiatives, but was reminded by town officials that my role was as "a legislator only" and that my offer of assistance and input was labeled as interference.

In 2006, as a councilman, I did bring to the floor of the council chamber a motion to increase the water rates by 5 percent. However, my motion included that 50 percent of that 5 percent increase be dedicated to a "reserve fund" to offset any future increase to soften the financial impact on our residents. The motion was passed.

Where is the reserve fund today? How much is in the account, and if it has been used, was there a vote by the council to approve the transfer of funds, which our charter requires?

My estimate reveals about $9,000 per year ($27,000 in three years) should have accumulated in the reserve fund. Combine this with revenue generated from a Cellular One contract ($25,000 per year, not yet completed) for use of our water tower would have eliminated the need for a water rate increase.

My questions to the town bookkeeper in regards to the water reserve fund received vague responses and remain a mystery today.

Washington County officials from the Water Quality Department, at a public meeting in 2008, recommended that the town's priority should be the pump stations, and yet town officials borrowed $4,400,000 ("Williamsport sewers to get $4.4 million facelift, Tuesday, Sept. 15, page A3) for other projects deemed less important with more money ($3.5 million) to be borrowed to replace the four aging pump stations and potentially placing a debt of more than $10,000 per household.

Our four pump stations should have been our top priority and if they fail, according to town officials, "it would take months to replace and repair." That has yet to be addressed, borrowing more money and adding more fees to your water/sewer bill and more debt to the citizens. Just think of the mess in your basement if the sewer lines fail due to a pump station being shut down.

If this priority is left unattended, a tragedy worse than the recent water main break in Dundalk, Md., is possible and will lead to the financial ruin of property and the personal finances of Williamsport residents.

Is there an emergency contingency plan on paper for procedures to implement in case of a failure of a pump station, as recommended by county officials?

In addition, very little action, if any, has been taken by the town to ensure that a properly licensed employee was to receive certification from the State of Maryland to oversee our water collection operations. A contract was to be negotiated with Washington County in the short term for compliance for our water collection system as required by state law to avoid Maryland Department of the Environment violations and state penalties.

In conclusion, it's not about placing blame and finger pointing. It's about holding our elected officials accountable for their decisions and encouraging transparency to ensure they are spending our money wisely, setting priorities and advocating for the people they serve. After all, they did ask for the job.

Earle Pereschuk
Williamsport




Current method of reviewing elected official salaries is inefficient



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