Water fund tapped to phase in higher rates

May 13, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

The commissioners may continue to take money from the county's water and sewer expansion fund to phase in rate increases over a three-year period.

The county had originally planned to double water and sewer rates in Eldersburg and nearly double sewer rates in Hampstead in just one year. Although the ultimate increases will be just as steep, the residents would pay less the first two years if the phase-in is approved.

Water and sewer rates for Eldersburg residents using 18,000 gallons of water per quarter -- a typical residential use -- would increase from the current annual average of $220 to $298 starting July 1, to $378 in 1993 and $456 by 1994 under a proposal to phase in the increases.

The county's original proposal recommended raising the average annual combined water and sewer bill for Freedom District residents from $220 to $450 on July 1.

By comparison, current average annual water and sewer rates are $297 for Frederick County, $207 for Howard County, $190 for Baltimore and $181 for Baltimore County, said County Comptroller Eugene C. Curfman said.

The county commissioners say they favor phasing in increases for the 3,640 businesses and residences served by the county-operated Freedom District water and sewer systems. But they have not found any alternative to reduce the rates for residents, who angrily objected to their doubling at an April 29 hearing.

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said she intends to explore ways to reduce the rates and expects a vote in "the next few weeks." She said she wants to examine whether the county has more employees than are needed at the water and sewer plants.

"It's been a concern of citizens and of mine," she said.

The commissioners are considering rate and connection charge increases because the systems have been operating at a deficit for years, say county officials. Rates were last raised in 1984, but were cut again in 1986.

By phasing in increases, the county will be forced to continue depleting its expansion project fund, said Curfman. He projects the fund will decrease from about $2 million this year to about $700,000 in two years.

Hookup fees are targeted to the fund, but connections have been restricted because the Freedom Wastewater Treatment Plant was near capacity and needed improvements.

The county has plans to build an estimated $15 million new water plant and a $14 million new sewage treatment plant for the Freedom District late in this decade, said Curfman. It also has borrowed $12 million to help pay for the upgrade and expansion of the Freedom sewage plant.

Eldersburg residents also would pay an annual $61.50 fee under the proposal to cover a portion of the debt payments for the plant's upgrade.

Under the phase-in, annual sewer rates for about 1,300 customers of the Hampstead plant would increase from $149 to $188 by July 1, to $227 in 1993 and $266 in 1994. Hampstead provides water to residents.

Curfman said the rates "appeared to stabilize" after the third-year increase. He estimates operating expenses for the water and sewer systems will increase from $1.8 million to $2.04 million over the next three years.

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