Baltimore Co. to weigh appeal of water ruling

August 24, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Baltimore County officials will meet next week to decide whether to appeal a decision requiring the county to pay Baltimore $10.2 million in back charges for water service.

County Executive Roger B. Hayden said he would meet late in the week with the county attorney and budget director before deciding whether to appeal the ruling, which directs the county to increase its share of the costs to operate and maintain the jointly used Metropolitan District water system.

Mr. Hayden declined to comment on where in the county's $1.13 billion operating budget the money might be found to cover the $10.2 million payment, if he decides not to appeal the decision to a Circuit Court judge. "It's just too early to say what direction we're going to take," he said.

If the county decides to pay, it could increase water service rates or implement a one-time surcharge on the rates to cover the payment, Budget Director Fred Homan said. Mr. Hayden's budget also includes a $10.8 million surplus that could possibly cover the payment, said Roger D. Redden, an attorney who represented Baltimore County in the case.

fTC The county last raised the water rates for its 188,000 customers by 35 percent July 1, 1989, but even with the increase, the typical annual residential water bill for county residents is about $65 to $80 a year.

This week's decision by the three-member panel, headed by arbitrator Harrison M. Robertson Jr., said the cost-sharing formula is unfair and that the system's depreciation costs -- which cover expenses for the age and wear on the massive water system -- should be shared equally by the county.

"Due to shifts in the population since the 1950s, the justification for the original determination of cost is no longer valid," the opinion says.

The 13-year-old dispute is based on a 1924 state law that requires the city to provide the county with water at cost.

Under the terms of a 1972 agreement, the city and county are each responsible for construction of new facilities within their borders, but the city is responsible for construction and maintenance of the central system facilities.

But in 1978, a city consultant said that the formula for determining costs was outdated and that the city was paying more than its fair share.

In its ruling Thursday, the arbitration panel agreed, noting that the county uses almost as much water as the city -- 101.3 million gallons per day in the county in 1988, compared to the city's 138.9 million gallons per day.

The ruling requires the county is to pay the $10 million within 60 days or face a 6 percent interest charge.

Ambrose T. Hartman, deputy city solicitor, said the money will likely go to making improvements to the aging water system.

If Baltimore County appeals the decision, it faces the task of proving a difficult point -- that the panel's ruling was arbitrary and capricious, said Mr. Redden.

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