Consolidated water and sewer operation a good idea for Harford [Editorial]

The idea of having Harford County served by a single governmental entity responsible for providing clean water and treating sewage on the whole is a good one. There are, however, aspects of such a system that deserve close public scrutiny as the water and sewer authority is being established.

As the water and sewer authority would be managed by an appointed board that will have the authority to set rates, the general public needs to be assured a level of dominion over the service. Also, geographic expansions of water and sewer service open new territory to high intensity development, so the water and sewer authority's ability to expand the areas it serves must be strictly regulated.

Typically, the only time most of us pay close attention to the various water and sewer operations serving the county is when a pipe breaks or an unusually large bill shows up in the mail, so a little bit of background is in order.

Harford County is served by three major government-owned water systems – those serving Aberdeen, Havre de Grace and the county at large – a private company that provides water in the Bel Air town limits and a few other communities, and a smattering of small public and quasi-public systems.

At the other end, it's served by government operated sewers and sewage treatment systems run by Aberdeen, Havre de Grace and the county, with Bel Air contracting to have its sewage treated by the county.

This may seem a bit confusing, but that's just the basics. There are two water treatment plants in a single building in Havre de Grace, one owned by the city and one by the county. Harford County has an agreement to supply water to the City of Aberdeen, whose water system stopped keeping pace with the demands on it more than two decades ago.

Aberdeen, meanwhile, has capacity to treat substantially more sewage than could be produced using the city's water system alone.

Havre de Grace has the capacity to produce substantially more water – and therefore wastewater – than could be treated by the city's sewage treatment plant.

Bel Air, meanwhile, sees its sewage treatment rates adjusted almost annually – sometimes up, sometimes down – as the county's costs for treating sewage fluctuate.

Rates structures vary substantially from system to system, as do hook-up fees and ancillary charges, which are set by the various governments that operate the systems – except for water rates in Bel Air which are set by the private Maryland American Water Company.

Add in the various water systems' relationships with Baltimore City, which owns a massive water pipe that links the city with the Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam and provides the county with water in times of drought, and things start to get really complicated.

The proposal to unify the water and sewer systems' management under a single Harford County Water Authority, as presented last week by the administration of Harford County Executive David R. Craig, has the trappings of a serious effort and should be treated as such. For one thing, there is no hollow promise that a consolidated service will save enough money that rates will end up being reduced.

Craig said it would be more realistic to expect rates to be stabilized or increase at a slower pace than would have been the case otherwise. It's a reasonable assumption. Though there would be some consolidation of management, there's no reason to expect large savings through consolidation of staffing because the same facilities will have to be managed.

Over the long haul, savings can be expected because the extra water production capacities of Havre de Grace and the county would keep Bel Air and Aberdeen from having to expand their water plants. Havre de Grace, meanwhile, would be under less pressure to pay for costly capacity expansions at its water treatment plant.

Which brings us back to one of the major areas of need for public leverage over a consolidated water authority. Water systems in Maryland are required to be financially self-sufficient, which means, for example, water rates cannot be subsidized by property tax revenue or vice versa.

This means when the cost of producing water (or treating sewage) increases, those costs must be passed on to water customers. Similarly, when a treatment plant is expanded, the cost of financing the expansion must be accounted for in the bills. At present, there is political pressure to keep the rates low because the rates are set by elected officials.

It is proposed that the water authority would be governed by a board whose volunteer members would be appointed by elected officials at the county and municipal level, giving them an arm's length relationship with the voters, who are also the water consumers. This is fine, so long as the terms are kept short enough to remind the water authority's board that it is a public service, not a private enterprise.

Similarly, because intensive development happens in areas where public water and sewer service is available, a water authority board with broad powers to decide service areas would, by default, become the county's planning and zoning authority. To prevent a body with an arm's length relationship with the voters from setting development policy by default, its power to extend water service must be subject to review by elected officials.

On the whole, however, given that Harford County probably has sufficient capacity to produce water and treat sewage, even as some of its communities are lacking capacity with regard to one or the other, a consolidated system is a good idea – as long as it can be kept in check.

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