Officials tense over deal for sewer service to high school

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Carroll County commissioners have signed an agreement that would provide sewer service for Francis Scott Key High School, but complained about the terms demanded by the town of Union Bridge, where the sewage treatment plant is located.

Union Bridge has yet to sign the agreement - and the commissioners' addition of a last-minute $7,000 limit on legal and consulting fees could delay or defeat it when the Town Council meets tonight, said Union Bridge Mayor Bret D. Grossnickle.

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said the town took advantage of having the county over the proverbial barrel.

"This is a lousy deal, but it's the best deal we can get from Union Bridge right now," Minnich said last week. "It's so much a one-way street. ... All the expense, they want to pass along to the county taxpayers."

As part of more than $16 million in renovations to the high school in 1997, the county Board of Education built a treatment plant - without the necessary state permits. In May last year, the county commissioners voted to abandon that $800,000 project and began planning the connection to the sewage treatment plant in Union Bridge.

The Board of Education now pays to have sewage hauled from the school and treated at Westminster - a situation that cannot continue, county officials said. The county Health Department and the Maryland Department of the Environment must approve that arrangement at the beginning of each school year, said Charles L. Zeleski, Carroll's acting director of environmental health.

For the 2004 fiscal year, the Board of Education paid $20,480 for hauling and $70,400 for treatment of sewage from the school, said Douglas Myers, county director of public works. But that cannot continue, he said, because "MDE and the Health Department will not allow it. It is not a viable and permanent solution."

Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. agreed. "MDE has been on the county's back for the last couple years, giving a time limit to get these things done. ... This is something that needs to be done - and should have been done a long time ago."

Grossnickle has tried unsuccessfully at several council meetings during the past year to persuade the Town Council to give the county more favorable terms, but he received no support.

"They all voted to take the hard line," he said. "It's our school, too. Our kids go to that school. It's not a business. I'd sooner see service go to the school than to 25 houses. ... I think these things are going to hurt us in the long run with the county."

Under the "special agreement for sewer service," the county would build, own and be fully responsible for a new 3 1/2 -mile line to connect to the Union Bridge plant.

The town ordinarily does not provide service outside its limits, and the agreement stipulates that the sewer line is to be used exclusively by the school, said John T. Maguire II, the attorney for Union Bridge who drafted the agreement.

If the agreement is accepted, the county would pay 2 1/2 times the user rate, and double for any excess flow - with the possibility of service being terminated if the flow is too high, according to the agreement.

The county payments to the town outlined in the agreement also would include: a $67,735 sewer-benefit assessment fee; $3,110 to help pay for a design study for a larger main that will be needed in town; about $42,250 for the expanded sewer line; and $15,267 for the town's share of a study to upgrade its treatment plant for projected residential development.

The agreement, as drafted by Maguire, said the county would reimburse the town for administrative, consultant and attorney costs, but the words "not to exceed $7,000.00" were added by the county attorney's office.

The county also would have to pay a part of the future costs of a new pumping station to be built at Jackson Ridge.

"They've got us over a barrel, and they're exploiting the situation," Minnich said.

Aside from the terms of the agreement, the county will spend an estimated $1.9 million to build the new sewer line, officials said.

Jones, a former Union Bridge mayor, said the county has looked at other solutions that would be far more costly.

"It's cheaper to come this route," he said.

Running lines to treatment plants in Taneytown or at Runnymede Elementary School would require land acquisition, stream crossings and new pumping stations.

Jones said that when he was mayor in 1999, the town and the school board "were two days away from signing an agreement ... a better deal" for the county, but the previous commissioners decided to try to build their own system.

Grossnickle said he believes the town's terms are too tough and fears they will damage the town's relationship with the commissioners.

"I was never one to want to penalize the county," he said. "The council asked for some things I wouldn't have asked for. I think some things they asked for have made the relationship with the county more terse. Things are rocky now, and I wish they wouldn't be. Hopefully, we can mend these fences."

Grossnickle said the council should decide whether to accept the agreement, especially because of the added limit on the legal fees.

The agreement sets a limit on legal and other fees at $7,000, but Grossnickle said the town has spent $6,700. "That's only $300 left - that's not much," he said.

"The county could come back requiring more legal work, and the town would have to pay for it," Grossnickle said. "I'm sort of disappointed that they took this tack - I'd rather have gone back to the council, and maybe we could have increased the amount of the cap," he said. "I'd like to get this behind us."

Jones agreed, saying that if the agreement is accepted and bids for the work go out this spring, "We probably could be done by this time next year."

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