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Harford water authority plan needs all on board to proceed [Editorial]

Delaying action on spending more money on plans for a countywide consolidated water and sewer agency was the prudent thing for the Harford County Board of Estimates to do.

Before the Board last week was a contract with a Bowie firm for $831,000 to put together the organizational infrastructure of what is proposed to be a semi-autonomous county water and sewer authority that would consolidate the management of the various water and sewer systems serving the county.

In all, the county has budgeted $2 million this year for the consolidation effort, and $831,000 is a similarly small sum in a county whose budget is in the hundreds of millions. Still, there's no point in moving forward with planning until it is crystal clear the various players involved are all, or at least mostly, on board with the plan.

When he first unveiled the idea for a countywide water authority, Harford County Executive David R. Craig gave assurances the governments of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace – which in different ways manage their own water and sewer services – were on board with turning their water and sewer operations over to the county government.

It seemed reasonable to presume the municipal governments would be willing to give up control of these expensive operations that have generated different kinds of management headaches for all three municipalities.

Bel Air, it seems, has the fewest reasons for wanting to hang onto its water and sewer responsibilities. Water for the town is provided by a private company, Maryland American, and sewage from the town already is treated by the county on a contractual basis. The town remains directly responsible only for its network of sewage collection pipes and pumping stations. Indeed, the town's recently retired administrator recommended before his departure the town sign on with the system.

Aberdeen and Havre de Grace have more at stake and it remains to be seen if they are willing to give up the leverage they have by virtue of their control over water and sewer service. These services, after all, are key to development. Exactly how the land use and development planning function will be organized with regard to water allocations is likely to be a key factor in determining whether Aberdeen and Havre de Grace fully commit to the water authority.

This relationship is to be outlined in the planning phase whose funding is under consideration at present.

In recommending that the Board of Estimates delay the vote on spending the $831,000 on the next phase of the project, Craig said the consolidation could move ahead if one of the three municipalities opts out.

That may be true from a county perspective, but given the competing development ambitions in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace that have evolved over the past several years, it is unlikely one will give up its water and sewer authority unless the other does. City officials in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace met separately with county representatives and discussed their options earlier this week.

While signing on to the next planning phase won't necessarily commit the municipalities to joining the water authority later in the process, if they decide not to commit at this early stage, there's not much point in the county spending any more money on the proposal.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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