Coca-Cola asks for better rate on water use


Administration officials spent most of yesterday trying to put together a deal to convince Coca-Cola that Howard County is the real thing.

The company wants a better rate than the county routinely charges for bringing water to a building site and County Executive Charles I. Ecker wants to give it to them.

He will ask the County Council to vote this morning to make an exception that would allow Coca-Cola Enterprises Northeast to build a $100 million bottling plant and regional headquarters here. The 650,000-square-foot facility would serve the East Coast, employ 300 to 500 workers and consolidate several smaller bottling plants in the mid-Atlantic region.

Coca-Cola spokeswoman Katherine Whiting refused to comment on the negotiations other than to say that "Coca-Cola Enterprises Northeast is still hopeful of locating in Howard County, and in Maryland, certainly."

At current rates, Coca-Cola would have to pay $6 million in so-called "in aid of construction charges" to bring 2.5 million gallons of water a day to a 120-acre site at Parkway Corporate Center east of U.S. 1 near proposed Route 100 and the Anne Arundel County line.

The county uses money generated from the connection charges to finance future public works capital projects and to avoid having to use bonds.

Interest earned on connection charge money is also used to fund public works projects.

The current charge is $600 per unit. A unit is based on typical residential use of 250 gallons a day. Every million gallons that Coke uses each day would be the same the amount used by 4,000 homes.

The difference, and the reason for suggesting a lower rate, says public works Director James M. Irvin, is that a single plant at a single site using 2.5 million gallons a day would need much less plumbing than 10,000 homes scattered throughout the county.

Accordingly, the administration has sent the council a resolution amending the schedule of water and sewer in-aid-of-construction charges for fiscal year 1993. Consumers at a single site using 1.5 million or more gallons of water a day would pay $100 a unit instead of $600 a unit. Coca-Cola's connection costs would thus be reduced from $6 million to $1 million.

If the council agrees to the resolution and Coca-Cola fulfills its earlier intention to buy the corporate center property, Coke would replace the Columbia Mall as the county's number one water user.

When the administration asked the council Monday to hold a special session legislative session this morning, council members C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, and Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, balked.

Ms. Pendergrass said Monday night she would have to be convinced an emergency exists before she would vote to approve a resolution without a public hearing.

Mr. Gray, meanwhile, had said Monday night that while he felt it was appropriate for the county to offer incentives to help lure companies of the stature of Coca-Cola here, he nonetheless wanted to postpone any vote on an incentive package until after a public hearing Oct. 19.

After talking to Mr. Ecker yesterday, however, Mr. Gray becamconvinced that the council needs to vote today on the new rate schedule.

Ironically, he is in London and will be unable to vote on the resolution.

He clearly wants the resolution to pass, however.

"This is a time as elected officials that we have to do what is in the that economic interest of the county," Mr. Gray said from the airport prior to his departure. "The income that Coke will generate in terms of taxes and prestige for other companies to locate here will more than offset and reduction in rates."

Voting today, he said, is "not an attempt to circumvent the public process. People know what we are doing. We can explain to the citizens that we are doing this because of the requirement of expediency."

The expediency that changed his mind, Mr. Gray said, is that the disclosure that the "drop-dead day" for Coca-Cola to make a deal with the Svatos Co. to buy the corporate center property for $16.8 million was yesterday. Coca-Cola allowed it to be extended to tomorrow, Mr. Gray said.

The council plans to hold a public hearing on the rate change 11 a.m. tomorrow and again at 7:30 o'clock tomorrow night if it deems necessary. The later hearing would be held only if people wanting to testify on the bill call the council office this morning and ask for it. A vote will follow the conclusion of the hearing.

Mr. Ecker wants the resolution acted upon as quickly as possible. "This is a tremendous economic possibility," he said. "I think it is absolutely essential that we take advantage of it."

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, said he feared his fellow council members may have put the deal in jeopardy.

"We're making a lot more out of this than we have to," he said. "Coke may decide that if it's this difficult to work with the County Council, they should look elsewhere."

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