In a somewhat unexpected vote, the Harford County Council turned down an increase in water and sewer rates that would have raised customers' bills an average 10 percent.
The 4-3 vote against the bill came after Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson, in a compromise move, successfully ushered through a package of amendments intended to lessen the increase for users who conserve water.
But when the amended bill came up for a vote Tuesday, the tide turned and three council members joined Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, a District C Democrat who has adamantly criticized the administration bill, and defeated the measure.
"I think we need to look at the whole issue here rather than go ahead with another increase," said Mrs. Pierno, who asked that the county conduct a cost analysis of water and sewerage use before proposing any more increases.
She said she fears the county is not imposing fair-share costs for services rendered and that too-frequent rate increases will price residents out of the county.
She contends that public water and sewer users are paying too large a percentage of the cost of building the county's wastewater treatment system, which also serves rural residents whose septic waste is periodically hauled to and treated at the county's Sod Run plant.
Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton, a District A Republican; Councilwoman Joanne S. Parrott, a District B Republican; and Councilman Barry Glassman, a District D Republican, also opposed the rate increase.
The bill would have raised usage rates 9 cents to $1.74 per thousand gallons of water and $2.19 per thousand gallons of sewer service. The percentage increase in water bills would have varied widely, depending on customers' usage.
During a public hearing last month, county representatives said that without the rate increase, the county would run a deficit of $297,000 in fiscal 1994.
Officials also noted it would not be the last rate increase in the 1990s. They projected further increases of 12 percent in 1996, 9 percent in 1997 and 5 percent in 1998 to bring the Water and Sewer Fund back into the black.
"It's not fair to expect the public to take on such enormous increases," Mrs. Pierno said Tuesday. The council in June also rejected a 9 percent across-the-board water and sewer rate increase.
It last approved higher rates in 1992 -- a 26 percent increase in water rates and 22 percent in sewerage.
"It's never easy to raise a rate or fee," Mr. Wilson said in encouraging approval of the new rates, "but our fiduciary responsibility requires us to be diligent in seeing that our revenues are up to supporting our expenditures."
But other council members felt less urgency for adoption.
Mrs. Parrott said that if the administration considered the legislation a "conservation bill," it should have conducted a public awareness campaign before introducing the measure to encourage people to conserve water to avoid higher bills.
After the negative vote on the bill, the council adopted a motion 6-1 to instruct the council's auditor to draft a proposal for conducting a performance audit on the water and sewer division.
In other business Tuesday, the council approved the Open Space, Land Preservation and Recreation Plan.
An element of the county's Master Land Use Plan, it outlines goals, strategies and projected costs of providing adequate recreational land and preserving natural resources in Harford through 2010.