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Harford council hears concerns about Mt. Soma property getting public water; stun gun bill passes

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Harford County's request to add the proposed 285-apartment Mt. Soma development to the public water system drew some debate at Tuesday's Harford County Council meeting.

The development is part of the proposed water and sewer plan update for spring 2014; the council held a public hearing Tuesday on the resolution to approve the update but did not take any action.

The resolution would place the Soma property, near Route 1 and the Belair Bypass, in the W-3 category, thus speeding up its inclusion in the public water system service area.

Fallston resident and land-use advocate Morita Bruce asked for the property to be excluded from the water and sewer plan until developers can show the site can handle stormwater run-off.

She said she is not against apartments, which are allowed on the site, but "I just think they're asking for far too many that they won't be able to handle."

"Where it slopes down from Belair Bypass, there is a very, very steep slope where the dirt has been pulled out," Bruce said.

"It's got gray and red, which is typical of clay, and clay does not [pass a septic percolation test]," she continued.

Bruce said she wants to see a detailed analysis of the impervious surfaces the site will have.

"I just don't think they can put as many on here as the nearly 300 [apartments] that they're planning," she said.

Beth Scheir, of the Greater Fallston Association, agreed with Bruce and asked for further investigation into water allocation at the site.

She asked that the property not to be developed until owners can show how the integrity of the Winters Run watershed area will be protected and maintained.

Ellen Pons, of Old Joppa Road, also wondered why a developer is asking to be in the county's water system when it is less than a mile from the Town of Bel Air, which uses Maryland American Water.

She asked what the "impetus" is for leaving the Bel Air water and sewer service area.

Darryl Ivins, county civil engineer, in response to a question from Councilman Joe Woods, confirmed that Soma's owners have been paying into the Fallston area's sanitary subdivision since at least 1999, after Woods raised the question.

Woods, who represents the Fallston area, said Soma's owners have a preliminary plan filed with the county, which "takes away one of my major issues."

Ivins also said the Soma property is near a 24-inch water main that runs along the Belair Bypass and was intended to serve the Fallston-Benson area.

He said the sewer system is capable of handling the projected amount of sewage from 285 apartments.

"It does have an impact but the impact is considered," Ivins said.

Woods introduced an amendment that would require any future apartment plans to be included in the water and sewer master plan before being allowed to move forward.

The amendment would not affect the Soma property, as Council President Billy Boniface said Wednesday the site can legally still move forward even if the project were removed from the master plan update, because its developer is only requesting one water connection.

"They are playing by the rules right now," Boniface said. "We just don't want any future plans getting around this process."

Boniface noted at the meeting that public hearings will be required on the amendment.

Stun guns

The council passed a bill allowing Harford adults to have stun guns or Tasers, which are already permitted under Maryland law.

Woods, who owns a gun shop, abstained from the vote.

The bill takes effect 60 calendar days from Tuesday.

More money for retiring employees

Council members Dion Guthrie and Jim McMahan questioned a request by county treasurer Kathryn Hewitt to move $1.2 million toward unexpected retirements that happened, or are expected to happen, this fiscal year.

Hewitt said the county has overspent its budget by $218,000 for paying out funds to employees who are leaving.

The appropriation would include moving $1 million from the general fund, another $100,000 from the highways fund and $100,000 from the water and sewer fund.

The shortfall is in the special pays part of the budget. Hewitt said previously the request is not unusual, as the county also overspent on retirement last year

Regarding the $1.2 million request, "we are trying to look forward to make sure we have sufficient funds appropriated through the end of the fiscal year," she told the council Tuesday.

McMahan asked if all the retirees have met their 20-year standards, in reference to legislation enacted years ago that would deny outgoing employees certain health care costs if they had been with the county fewer than 20 years.

County human resources director Janet Schaub said the 20-year requirement is only to receive a health insurance subsidy and has nothing to do with retirement eligibility.

She said the current bill has nothing to do with the insurance subsidy.

Hewitt also said this payment only covers employees' annual leave, as they would be paid for any annual leave they have accrued. They would also be paid for 50 percent of unused sick days.

Guthrie, who noted this is his 12th county budget and he is a business owner, wondered why the county's budget does not factor in the cost of all eligible employees retiring.

"There has to be somebody across the street screwed up putting a budget together," Guthrie said. "You have to assume that every single person in your employ will activate all their benefits at a certain time, whether they do it or not."

Schaub replied that she does not believe the county has ever fully funded all the individuals who could possibly retire, and noted that amount would total more than $17 million if the county paid it all out.

Hewitt said that amount would take away from too many other activities.

"We make an estimate each year of what we expect to occur each year and put that into the budget," Hewitt said.

Guthrie said the council should revisit during the upcoming budget process how the county pays for retirement.

Ryan Burbey, head of the Harford County Education Association teachers' union, said it is "very disconcerting" to see a supplemental appropriation bill from the county executive's office when the Board of Education does not have any such arrangement with the council.

He said the county school system funds unexpected retirements by not filling positions and hiring long-term substitutes.

He encouraged the county not to allow a budget to be passed if each department does not fund its OPEB, or other post-employment benefits, obligations, as the Board of Education is required to do.

"I find it very remarkable that this continues to happen," Burbey said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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