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Water and sewer authority not immediate priority for incoming Harford executive

Incoming Harford County executive Barry Glassman says it will be at least six months before he considers whether to move forward with his predecessor's proposed countywide water and sewer authority.
Incoming Harford County executive Barry Glassman says it will be at least six months before he considers whether to move forward with his predecessor's proposed countywide water and sewer authority. (AEGIS FILE PHOTO / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County's incoming county executive is taking a wait-and-see stance on forming a countywide quasi-governmental water and sewer authority, which would own and run all the municipal and county water and sewer systems.

Control of the water and wastewater treatment plants, as well as the water and sewer infrastructure, owned and operated by Aberdeen, Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Harford County, would be ceded to a board of directors made up of members appointed by the four jurisdictions.

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"I think the jury is out on the cost/benefit, and I'm going to wait and see what the report says," Barry Glassman, the county executive-elect, said Wednesday.

The report Glassman referred to is being prepared by contractor GHD Inc. of Bowie for the second phase of the four-phase implementation process.

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The second phase, which is being done at a cost of $831,000 shared by the county and all three municipalities, covers how ownership of the assets would be transferred, how customer rates will be set, the status of water and sewer employees and their pensions and benefits, as well as how municipal annexations will be handled, since those municipalities will not control the water and sewer services they often offer as a benefit of annexation.

"We're going to get the study and review it and do our due diligence," Glassman said.

The county's Board of Estimates, which is chaired by the current County Executive David Craig, approved the contract with GHD in February of 2014.

Craig, who is in the final two weeks of his last term, has been a strong supporter of the authority. Officials in his administration have promoted the authority as a way to improve the property development process, stabilize rates for consumers and secure the local water supply.

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Officials in the three municipalities, particularly those in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, have been less sanguine about the proposal, recognizing that they would potentially be ceding control over future economic and land use decisions to a third party.

Officials with the Town of Bel Air have been more supportive because the town receives its water service from the Maryland American Water Company and its sewage is treated by the county-owned Sod Run Wastewater Treatment Plant. In addition to owning little infrastructure, except the lines that collect sewage inside its borders, Bel Air has no incentive to expand through annexation because the surrounding areas already are developed.

The Maryland American supply at Winters Run just west of the town is considered unreliable, and the company's backup is to purchase water from the county's system that serves the areas surrounding the town.

One issue a countywide authority ultimately would have to address is who would control the Maryland American system. The company is part of a publicly traded utility, American Water. Its rates are regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission, while the county and municipal systems are under no such control.

During a visit with town officials this summer, an American Water regional official said the company is cooperating with the countywide authority study, but also said it would be premature to speculate on the company's future relationship with such an authority.

Glassman, who takes office Dec. 1, expects to see a report from the consultant during the first quarter of 2015, although he said the authority would not be a priority during the first six months of his administration.

Glassman said he is "interested to see what the impact is on, not only municipal water and sewer users, but what the potential impact is on county water and sewer users.".

Glassman said he has heard concerns from municipal officials about the authority, particularly regarding land use matters.

The ways in which a water and sewer authority could affect municipal development, through annexation and restrictions on the amount of nutrients that can enter waterways through the wastewater treatment plant, were a major topic of concern for Aberdeen officials, who discussed the authority during a work session between city council members and staff Monday.

City Manager Doug Miller said Aberdeen leaders are working with Harford County officials and their consultants during the phase two study process to resolve the many concerns that could come up through transferring ownership, including the annexation and nutrient loading issues.

Miller said "we have a real concern here" about potential developments that would be built near the city limits and tie into Aberdeen's infrastructure, and the city would shoulder the costs, but not gain any benefits from development.

"We have these populous areas on our borders that pay no taxes and impact our roads, impact our schools, impact our police department but are not paying into it," he said.

Miller also noted the city's wastewater treatment plant has a limited capacity for its TDML, or Total Maximum Daily Load, which is the maximum amount of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, local waterways can handle each day as the treated wastewater is discharged.

The TMDLs are set by the state and federal governments.

"We know that is a limit to our development and the future expansion of Aberdeen," Miller said.

He and Mayor Mike Bennett expressed concerns about how nutrient loading capacities would be distributed among the authority's jurisdictions, and whether areas of the county experiencing more development than Aberdeen would get greater nutrient capacity, leaving Aberdeen with less capacity for potential development.

Miller is also concerned about wastewater treatment plants in the region hitting their TMDL limits in five to 15 years.

Mayor Mike Bennett said that if city officials could not work out ways to protect Aberdeen's ability to develop, they could withdraw from the implementation process.

The city contributed $81,438 toward the authority phase two study, but each municipality can opt out before the third and fourth phases, which involve the incorporation of the authority and then transferring the assets and debts of each jurisdiction.

"If we can't get some proper resolution to that issue that is going to protect us, that's probably going to be the end of our participation at that point in time," Bennett said.

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