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Residents urge county to reconsider water, sewer rate hikes

April 13, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A handful of Washington County residents spoke out against proposed increases in county water and sewer rates at a public hearing Tuesday morning.

"I'm coming to you all just to say, 'Please reconsider if you possibly can,'" Halfway-area resident Mary Bowling told the Washington County Commissioners.

The proposed increases amount to an additional expense of $4.90 per quarter for the average residential county sewer customer, or $9.40 per quarter for those customers who get county water in addition to county sewer service.

The increases were determined by a rate model and reflect, among other things, declining water and sewer usage and preparation for the county's water and sewer fund to lose all general fund contributions starting in fiscal year 2013 as part of a self-sufficiency plan, officials have said.

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The model calls for the county to continue to increase water and sewer revenue by 4 percent each year through fiscal year 2020.

Bowling said that on top of increases to other bills such as cable and phone service, the rate hike would be difficult for some families. She said her husband, who works as a correctional officer, recently took a pay cut, and she stays home to care for an autistic child.

"We try to watch our pennies," she said.

Another woman spoke on behalf of a group of her neighbors in the Oak Ridge area, which she said included many seniors on fixed incomes.

"I don't think it is fair to us older people to have to be sacrificing more and more," she said. "All the utilities have been going up, and now this is sprung on us."

Two residents who spoke suggested creating incentives for households that conserve water and use less than the 6,000 gallons per quarter included in the county's base rate.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said the county charges a fixed base rate for any usage up to 6,000 gallons to cover operational costs the county incurs for each customer, regardless of whether they use 1,000 gallons or 4,000.

Thomas Shepherd, who lives north of Hagerstown, said he was concerned by the prospect of additional increases every year through 2020 and asked what had been done to try to keep rates low.

County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said the rate increases proposed now are much lower than the 10 percent-per-year hikes county officials once predicted.

He said the county has taken substantial measures each year to reduce operating expenses and debt requirements for the water and sewer systems. For example, combining facilities for efficiencies saved the county almost $15 million in capital costs, he said.

County Budget and Finance Director Debra S. Murray added that the county has saved $16 million to $20 million in interest expenses through refinancing, with much of those savings in utility funds.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said another cost-saving measure was the county's decision to pilot a new, less-expensive wastewater treatment process to comply with new state requirements.

Glenn Fishack, president of the county's Water and Sewer Advisory Commission, said the commission was in favor of the proposed increases and continued use of the rate model.

"In the long run, it keeps the county tax rate down," Fishack said.

He invited anyone with concerns to come to the advisory commission's meetings on the second Monday of each month at 5 p.m. at the water quality office at 16232 Elliott Parkway near Williamsport.

The commissioners encouraged anyone who was unable to attend Tuesday's public hearing to voice their opinions about the water and sewer rate increases during an evening hearing on the county budget, tentatively scheduled for May 4.




If you go...



What: Public hearing on Washington County's budget

When: May 4, 7 p.m. (tentative)

Where: Kepler Theater, Hagerstown Community College

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