DIRTY WATER PROMPTS FIGHT OVER WHO'S TO PAY FOR NEW PIPES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dorothy Zeun won't drink the water at her place anymore -- she's seen it come out of the pipes dark brown one too many times.

Even when the water's clear, she drinks bottled water, preferring not to takea chance on what might be in her county-provided water.

And when she washes clothes, she checks first to make sure the water is clear. She almost ruined her daughter's nursing uniforms once when she didn't check and the white uniforms came out covered with dark brown stains.

Over the years, Zeun and her family have learned to live with the dark brown water they get at their house, on average, at least once a month. But that doesn't mean they like it.

"It stinks," she said, when asked about water service in her neighborhood."This has been going on for at least 10 years. They keep saying they'll do something about it and they don't."

The Zeuns, residents ofPatsy Avenue in Glen Burnie for 37 years, are not alone.

Hundredsof families living in older neighborhoods in North County and the Broadneck Peninsula area have or probably soon will experience similar problems.

Thomas Nevin, a resident of Stewart Avenue in Glen Burnie since 1955, said his family has two water-related problems: not only do they get dirty water regularly, but they also have extremely weak water pressure.

"If you're out back washing the car and someone turns on the faucet inside, you can't get the hose to squirt at all,"he said. "You can't even get a drip out of it."

Utilities administrators here say the problems are caused by "an aging infrastructure," or more specifically, old pipes.

Many of the neighborhoods builtin the 1950s and '60s are getting dirty water and have low water pressure due to sediment buildup and the deterioration of 2-inch mains that carry water into their homes.

By today's standards, the 2-inchpipes are substandard. In most jurisdictions, 6-inch pipes are the norm. But the pipes were considered adequate when they were installed three decades ago, utilities officials said.

The easiest solution would be to replace the pipes and repair many of the larger pipes that connect into them. But the question of who should pay for it all has stalled action for years.

Two years ago, utilities officials approached residents in Glen Burnie, where the first section of bad pipes was identified, and said they were ready to replace eight miles of pipe by charging homeowners.

Residents were furious, saying they had paid for installation of pipes when they bought their homes. This "front-foot assessment" charge should guarantee them quality water service indefinitely, they said.

"They threw this back on us: If we want it fixed, we should pay," said Donald Gibson, a longtime resident of Patsy Avenue. "I don't think that's right."

"We've already paid the front-foot assessment," Nevin said. "If the pipes need to be fixed, it should be part of the county's obligation to pay for that."

But James M. Hurley, chief of administration and finance, said theutilities department simply doesn't have the money to replace the pipes. When homeowners buy a new home, they are charged a front-foot assessment, based on the size of their property, that covers the cost of installation alone, he said. Although most people pay off the assessment over 30 years, the money still goes to cover the original expense, he said, not to set up a long-term maintenance or replacement program.

Some residents and county officials say this explanation is unacceptable, coming from a department with an annual operating budget of $46 million and a multiyear capital budget of $400 million.

"Part of planning is to plan for replacing old pipes. That's what the (front-foot) money is paid for, and it's not fair to ask people to pay again," said Theodore J. Sophocleus, who represented the North County area on the County Council from 1982 until 1990. "You can't wait until people have paid for 30 years and then say, 'Start paying again.' "

Sophocleus said the department should re-examine its capital improvements program to ensure there is adequate money for repairs andreplacements, as well as new projects. In the past, he said, the department has put its emphasis on new projects, ignoring rehabilitationand replacement work.

"This condition has existed since 1982 at least," he said. "People were told the water problems would be corrected. They were never told they would have to pay for (pipes) again."

County Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, D-Glen Burnie, said the situation is unacceptable and requires "immediate action."

"It doesn'tseem very difficult to me," he said. "Funds should be set aside -- hands off -- and lines should be replaced as the time comes.

"How many years are we going to lay around and wait and do nothing, while the situation just continues to get worse and worse?" he asked. "Schools do it: They plan (to renovate) older schools, and they don't just do it for a year at a time. They plan ahead."

Ronald E. Bowen, chief of operations for utilities, said the department is trying to maketough decisions that would help plan for the future. The aging infrastructure is not confined to Glen Burnie, he said, and pipes will eventually have to be replaced in Linthicum, Ferndale, Green Haven, Riviera Beach, Severna Park and small sections of Crofton and Odenton. The bulk of the problem, however, is in Glen Burnie.

"We're at that point of time where we're trying to come up with decisions to set thecourse of action for today and into the future," he said.

Hurley said the department has been studying the situation to determine if areplacement program -- estimated to cost about $18 million for 24 miles of 2-inch mains already identified -- could be done at less expense and financed differently. The department has estimated that replacing or repairing all aging mains over the next decade could cost $200million to $300 million countywide.

The department is examining how other jurisdictions are financing replacements to get ideas, he said.

Several surrounding jurisdictions have problems that are as extensive or even larger than Anne Arundel County's. The Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission, which provides water and sewer service to Montgomery and Prince George's counties, has identified 130 miles of pipe that need to be replaced.

Like Anne Arundel County, the WSSC is financed solely by fees paid by customers -- it receives no tax revenue. But unlike Anne Arundel County, the WSSC has a large pipe replacement program included in its capital improvements budget and does not plan to charge homeowners in targeted areas to replace pipes.

Hurley said his department may have a counterproposal for the replacement plan within the next few months. He said he hopes to include money for new pipes in the fiscal 1993 budget, which begins July 1.

The idea of charging residents, however, has not been abandoned and may still be used to cover at least part of the cost. In jurisdictions that pay for replacements out of general revenues, the rates for water and sewer service tend to be higher, Hurley said.

A rough comparison of rates between counties, for an average use of 24,000 gallons of water per quarter, shows that in Anne Arundel County, a consumer's bill would be about $90 to $95, compared with about $100 to $110 in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The bill would be substantially less in Howard County -- about $50 to $60. But in Howard, some money for pipe replacement and repairs comes from general funds, somefrom customers' regular bills.

Hurley said just as many residentsmight object to sizable rate increases to cover pipe replacement as those who objected to covering the cost out of new front-foot assessments.

"The issue is still under review. No options have been ruledout yet," Hurley said.

In the meantime, Zeun and her neighbors goon making due -- drinking bottled water and using Rover Rust Removerto take water stains out of their whites.

"I don't think every time I turn on the faucet I should have to guess whether I'll get decent water," Gibson said. "You have to constantly wonder, is it going tobe good today?"

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