Bel Air's 99-year guarantee $$TC

July 17, 1992

Ninety-nine years. It sounds like a long time. Ninety-nine years ago, electric lighting hadn't been installed in the White House, and when it finally was, President Benjamin Harrison and his wife made an employee turn on and off the switch because they feared to touch it.

We provide this as backdrop to a controversy involving Harford County and its county seat of 10,000 people, Bel Air. In 1969, Harford signed an agreement with Bel Air that for 99 years, the town could dispose of its trash in the county landfill for free. In exchange, the town gave its landfill to the county as a prison site.

Now, 23 years later, the county has begun charging all private haulers and towns that dump garbage at its landfill a fee of $35 per ton. It was among the last counties in the state to impose a "tipping fee."

The town of Bel Air, however, is balking. A deal's a deal, it says. The tipping fee would cost it $200,000 a year, 3 percent of its total budget.

The county's reply: Bel Air must "belly up to the bar." The guarantee struck in 1969 shouldn't be valid any more because "conditions change."

Really? That comes as no surprise to anyone. County officials knew conditions would change when they signed this contract with Bel Air 23 years ago. Let's face it: Harford County made an overly generous deal a generation ago and is stuck with it. The county even confirmed the arrangement just a few years ago when it transferred the agreement it had with Bel Air from the Tollgate landfill, which was being closed, to cover the new Scarborough dump site.

This issue has become a bur in the normally cozy relationship between the county and town. Some county council members went so far recently as to rattle sabers by threatening to hold up the routine transfer of parkland to Bel Air. There's also been talk -- veiled threats? -- of whether county government would be better served moving to a campus setting outside Bel Air's commercial district. There are also joint water supply issues. "I don't think there's any question that until the tipping fee issue is resolved, it casts a long shadow on intergovernment relations," county council president Jeffrey Wilson said.

Both jurisdictions need each other -- Bel Air provides services to the county's development envelope, county government brings business to downtown merchants. The two need to work out their differences. But the county definitely comes off the piker in all this, arguing in effect, who would ever think a 99-year deal would last 99 years?

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