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Harford County, municipalities have mixed views on proposed water authority

BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

6:15 AM EST, January 23, 2014

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Harford County's three municipal governments are set to decide if they should sign on for an $831,000 study that will push them toward being part of a countywide water and sewer authority.

County Public Works Director Tim Whittie said the authority could help make it easier for developers setting up shop in the future, as well as provide water security and stabilize rates for taxpayers in both the county and the municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

Local elected officials, however, have mixed views on whether such an authority would benefit their respective communities.

Bel Air's mayor is completely on board and Aberdeen seems largely supportive as well. Havre de Grace leaders appear divided, although in that city, it is likely to be left to the voters to decide.

Public statements made recently by Harford County Executive David Craig could be interpreted as meaning that signing on for the comprehensive study – phase two of four proposed steps in the authority-creation process up for consideration – would mean the municipalities have effectively signed on for the whole authority.

Whittie, however, clarified Monday, saying even if the municipalities sign on for the next phase of the project, they would be able to opt out after the phase two study results come in.

"The town and the city can opt out after phase two. Actually, up until the point that the authority assumes the assets, debt and liability for the town or city, they can still opt out of the authority," Whittie said.

Phase two is expected to answer a lot of the questions raised to date by officials in Havre de Grace and Aberdeen. Phases three and four would establish the articles of incorporation, as well as transfer the assets, debt and liability.

Up until the assets, debt and liability are transferred, any prospective participant could opt out. In addition, before any Havre de Grace assets could be transferred, the move would have to be put before the city's voters; the council doesn't have the authority under the city charter to divest itself of the properties.

Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett has been especially adamant that the authority is far from being a done deal.

"I don't agree that phases three and four are formalities. There's a lot of things that have to be worked out," he said Sunday. "When this phase two study is done, that is when we will make a determination."

But he also said such an authority could make a lot of sense and is in favor of at least signing on for the study.

"We really need to continue to be a part of this because we want to get all our questions answered," Bennett said. "I think it's worth the money to do that."

Most of the council is supportive, too, he said. Councilwoman Ruth Elliott, however, expressed concern about potentially losing control of the city's water resources.

"My sense is that four of the five of us think that it's worthwhile going forward," Bennett said.

"I really think it's not being a good steward of time and money to not spend a little bit of money now so we can get all the big questions answered and then say, OK, we either like your answers or we don't like your answers," the mayor said.

Aberdeen was asked by the county to commit $81,438 toward the cost of the study, while Havre de Grace would commit $83,100 and Bel Air $25,761, based on their respective numbers of affected residents. The county would pay the remaining $640,700.

In Havre de Grace, Mayor Wayne Dougherty would not have a vote unless the council's vote was tied, but he doesn't think buying into the study makes sense for the city.

"I think it's a waste of money at this point," he said Sunday, adding he has "great, great reservations" about the authority in general.

"Who is this really going to benefit? It's going to benefit Harford County, is what I think," Dougherty said. "I am not sure it would be in the best interest of the city. I worry about [Havre de Grace] employees."

"During the first phase of this, one answer that came out was, 'Well, we can guarantee [employees] a job for three years,'" he said.

He said Havre de Grace has "great" water and sewer services, despite the deep debt in the water fund.

"I am still feeling very confident that we are going to work our way out of it," he said of the debt.

If the city joined the authority, he said, future development could only be in the county's favor.

"Who in the world is going to want to annex to the city if they already have water and sewer through the county?" he said.

If the city went ahead with phase two, "if I backed out at that time, how much had I invested? How much would I get back?" Dougherty asked.

The county public works director said the municipalities would not be entitled to refunds should they sign on for the studies then choose not to join the authority.

Although Whittie hesitated to say the authority could pave the way for more development, he said it would help any future development proposal get established.

"If this authority is done well, the authority would be in a good position to be able to serve future development," he said. "Certainly it would make it easier and more effective for more development to be able to get funded."

He added that Havre de Grace and Aberdeen are "all interconnected with their water systems," while Bel Air collects its sewage but discharges it to the county for treatment. Bel Air's water service is provided by a private firm.

Robert Reier, head of Bel Air's board of town commissioners, said a combined authority has been proven to work in other communities and he believes all the town commissioners in the county seat are on board for the study.

He agreed with Whittie that it is likely to facilitate future development.

"I can't help but think that having a consolidated type of authority would help reduce some of the red tape that is involved sometimes in development, but that is probably one of the challenges out there that's yet to be determined," he said.

The authority "seems like it does have a great deal of potential and it would favor the citizens, based on how it's currently conceptualized," Reier said. "At this point in time, the authority seems to be a concept that has worked across the country...I am not one to kind of recreate the wheel."