Going With Flow, And Paying For It

COMMENT

December 06, 1992|By MIKE BURNS

Alchemists and sorcerers could learn a lot from Harford County's modern water wizards.

A few weeks ago, they reportedly turned cheap drinking water from the Havre de Grace treatment plant into gold, or the monetary equivalent thereof, after passing it a mere two miles through county-owned pipes.

The aqua pura cost the county 60 cents for 1,000 gallons. Minutes later, that same amount of water was returning to Havre de Grace lines at a cost of $1.90.

What was the magic ingredient, the mysterious incantation uttered over the H2O that tripled its value in that rapid transfer? By official explanation, it was due to "distribution costs" of

carrying the water through county lines. A lot of people think that this legerdemain really amounted to plain arm-twisting.

You see, Harford County and the city of Havre de Grace are squabbling over water rights. But don't mistake this dispute for the blazing six-shooter battles of the Western movies. The problem here is not too little water, but too much water for current needs. And someone has to pay for it.

About five years ago, Havre de Grace doubled the capacity of its water treatment plant. Not that the quiet town of 9,000 was expecting the development of a new Levittown or the next Disney-cosmos amusement complex.

Rather, it was to help meet Harford County's projected need for water in an anticipated building boom. Without that extra water in the pipe, county officials worried that they could be forced to cut off building permits in the future.

Havre de Grace agreed to rebuilding the plant with county money and continued to staff the entire plant with city employees. To pay for maintaining this larger operation, Havre de Grace required Harford County to buy 2 million gallons a day (MGD) from the plant when it became capable of full-capacity operation. That happened last year.

But a curious thing happened about four years ago. The water pressure on the line serving the city's Chesapeake Industrial Park dropped. It didn't affect the supply to industries there, but the fire hydrants didn't have enough pressure to fight a serious blaze.

As a quick remedy, the city asked Harford to open the water loop connecting city and county water lines at U.S. 40 and Revolution Street. The county's line boosted hydrant pressure, but it also started supplying the industrial park.

That set the county's water meter running, but the city never got a bill. Until last month. After the city had refused to let the county out of its obligation to buy the 2 MGD from the Havre de Grace half of the St. Johns Street treatment plant.

The bills added up to $56,000. The delayed, lump-sum demand for payment was an oversight, county water lords explained. The meters had, in fact, been diligently read, but the billing office just hadn't gotten around to sending out the bills. Until last month, when the city refused to void the county's agreement.

It was an expensive stop-gap fire protection measure, Havre de Grace city fathers reflected in hindsight.

But with Harford County water rates several times higher than those in Baltimore and Baltimore County, the hefty markup should not have been a big surprise. Harford's rates are higher because its distribution system is built for future needs.

The matter should have been settled by now. It would have been if the county actually could use the full 2 MGD from Havre de Grace. But its distribution system in that region does not have that much demand; extending new lines to the county's growth corridor would cost Harford a pretty penny.

Gunther Hirsch, the mayor of Havre de Grace, said that 95 percent of the items have been resolved. "I think we're very close to wrapping it up," he added. Mr. Hirsch insists that the county's water bill is not tied to water plant cost negotiations. He also appreciates the difference between an elephant and a flea.

Some observers won't find it curious that Harford County is trying to back out of the 2 MGD purchase agreement now.

This is the same county that is trying to force Bel Air to abandon the agreement that gives the town the right to dump its refuse in Harford landfills for free. It was a deal that the county begged Bel Air to take a few years ago in exchange for acquiring that town's municipal dump.

It's not that Harford County doesn't have some points on its side. It paid for most of the plant expansion, although Havre de Grace provided the property. Even though city employees run the plant (the main operational cost at issue), the facility is actually divided into a county half and a city half. Harford takes its half of the water, but it doesn't want 2 million gallons from the Havre de Grace side, as the contract provides.

There's no reason why the two sides can't work out an agreement. It's not that Harford doesn't need the water; the county sealed a deal with Baltimore city last week to get 20 MGD out of the Susquehanna River through the city's "Big Inch" pipeline.

No one is clairvoyant, even county planners. Future needs are guesses and projections. And sometimes the price of such projections is not immediately justified. But a deal is a deal. Political leaders may change every couple of years, but government commitments should not be torn up after every election.

Unfortunately, some recent Harford history seems to give its municipalities reason to be wary of agreements with the county. Who knows what magic tricks could be conjured up to void the next such accord?

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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