The first step was to get everybody involved to agree to study the merits of creating a quasi-governmental agency to own and operate all the local water and sewer systems in Harford County.

The second step is more complicated and expensive: Sort through all aspects of transferring ownership of municipal and county systems to a quasi-independent water and sewer authority and assess the ripple effects on customer rates, employees and existing services.

The second of four phases involved in forming the authority received the green light Thursday when the members of Harford County's Board of Estimates voted 5-0 to approve an $831,000 contract with GHD Inc. of Bowie to conduct a study on how the transfers will take place.

Board members had delayed acting on the contract at their last meeting on Jan. 9 because leaders of the Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace municipal governments had yet to agree to participate in helping to fund the next phase. The board missed its next two scheduled meetings because of government snow closings and, in the interim, all three municipalities agreed to join the second phase.

"Each [municipal] council has voted to appropriate money to move forward with Phase II," said Public Works Director Tim Whittie, who is also an estimates board member.

For the phase two study, Havre de Grace will pay $83,100, Aberdeen will pay $81,438 and Bel Air will pay $25,761; the county will pick up the remainder of the tab, which is $640,701.

Officials of the three municipal governments have agreed to participate in Phase II, they have continued to express reservations about giving up all control and ownership of their systems. Havre de Grace's charter would preclude any such transfer without prior city voter approval.

Whittie said after the meeting that the cost to each of the four entities is based on the number of water and sewer connections in each community. Aberdeen and Havre de Grace own and operate water and sewer systems. Bel Air has its own sewer system, but its water system is owned and operated by the private Maryland American Water Company.

County Council President Billy Boniface congratulated fellow board members Whittie and County Executive David Craig for working with the municipalities.

"Good job trying to get everybody on board because it's important," added Boniface, who had insisted on last month's delay.

Boniface also asked Whittie to explain the high cost of Phase II.

Whittie said the study is "pretty technical" and involves a detailed analysis of the water and sewer assets of the municipalities and the county, as well as their employee pension plans and legal agreements between the municipalities and outside entities.

He also told board members the municipalities can use the Phase II study to develop a capital improvement program for their infrastructure, regardless if they continue with the third and fourth phases of implementation.

He provided more detail after the meeting, saying the study will cover five areas, including how municipal annexation policies will be affected once they no longer own their water and sewer systems, as water and sewer connections are often used as an incentive in such transactions.

The contractor will also review the compensation and benefits the county and municipalities offer to their employees, including pensions, and how employees can remain "whole" and not lose pension benefits when they are working for the authority.

"It's a good study to have," Whittie said. "Whether we move on to three or four, it's definitely information they [the municipalities] can utilize to make their water and sewer systems better."

Hangar for sheriff's helicopter secured

Estimates board members also voted 5-0 Thursday to approve a $600-a-month lease with Harford Associates General Partnership for the Harford County Sheriff's Office's helicopter hangar space at Forest Hill Airpark.

"Only $600 a month?" Boniface asked, marveling at the price.

Sheriff Jesse Bane announced in December his agency had acquired its first aviation unit, a $1 million Bell OH-58 surplus military helicopter transferred to the county by the Department of Defense.

The estimate board's two citizen members, Jay Van Deusen and Warren Hamilton, were absent Thursday.