Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden will push to cancel more than $3 million in annual local tax breaks for Bethlehem Steel Corp. if the steelmaker doesn't soon propose an agreeable solution to a dispute over 388 acres the company was to give the county.
Hayden says he has met with company officials twice since taking office and expects a proposal from them in the next several weeks.
He says he will not let the dispute over environmental liability for the land drag on forever, especially while the company is enjoying the local utility tax break plus the benefits of millions of dollars the county and state have committed to repair and improve roads and utilities on the land.
The tax break is equal to about 2.5 cents on the county property tax rate of $2.865 per $100 of assessed value.
In addition, Baltimore County has spent about $800,000 to plan improvements on the land and study potential pollution under it. And that doesn't count the county's $1.8 million-per-year operation of the company's former Sparrows Point fire station on land the county still doesn't own.
The county wants to use the land to create a business park in the hope of spurring commerce on the east side.
The lingering dispute is over who would bear responsibility if a future tenant on the land sued for a problem related to toxics possibly buried in the land. According to sources close to the talks, the steel company is willing to agree to bear legal responsibility for any pollution already in the ground,but not for anything deposited after the county takes over ownership.
The county's problem is that if claims arise years from now, there may be no way to determine when any particular pollutant was put into the ground and by whom. County officials worry that if some toxic substance not found in the environmental studies turns up in future years the county could get stuck with the liability.
The six land parcels in question were used mainly for storage or for residential worker housing. One was the site of a pipe mill used in steel production.
"I have to be satisfied that Baltimore County is not put at risk," Hayden says.
Cleaning up pollution, even in relatively simple cases, Hayden says, "is big bucks."
Hayden last met with Clifford Ishmael, Bethlehem's human resources manager, on May 31, and is awaiting word from the Pennsylvania firm. He says he has told the company that if no agreement can be reached, he would reassess all the elements of the deal.
Company spokesman G. Ted Baldwin says company officials have decided it would "be inappropriate to comment" while negotiations are under way.
The County Council agreed to reduce Bethlehem's electricity tax in November 1987, and the county and the company signed a three-page memo of understanding for the land transfer in 1988, but the county has never taken possession of the parcels, which were to be marketed for industrial park use.
The company also decided to stop operating its own fire station, which forced the county to take over the facility to provide coverage for the sprawling plant. The county was to receive the 28 acres around the fire station, on which it planned to build a new $20 million fire academy and maintenance garage and a new Sparrows Point station, but that transfer is also on hold.
The new fire facilities have been put on hold in any event, because Hayden determined the county can't afford them in the midst of the recession.
The county and the state also agreed to share the $10 million cost of repairing and maintaining 5.6 miles worth of roads and bridges on the land.