Cooperation Knows No State Borders

COMMENT

September 11, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

In the wide open spaces of Harford County's Great Green North, the worth of a good neighbor is not to be undervalued.

The state border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and the Mason and Dixon Line that preceded it, don't mean as much to those communities that have come to depend on each other, as it does to people clustered around the development envelope. Lower taxes may lure some people to locate in Pennsylvania, but there's still a need to share local services.

That's the spirit that has shaped the sharing of public library services, and the contributions from Pennsylvania entities to the Harford system. It's reflected in the activities of churches and social organizations that cut across the state line; the minister of a Fawn Grove, Pa., church addresses the Harford school board on behalf of members living in Maryland, for example.

The cooperative urge prompted the recent formation of the Mason-Dixon Business Association of about 60 businesses in northern Harford and southern York County, Pa., to work for common goals.

The organization that has for the longest time embodied that spirit of frontier cooperation is the Delta-Cardiff Volunteer Fire Company. But two weeks ago Harford members voted to break away from the 70-year-old bi-state organization and filed a lawsuit to retain the company's fire equipment, now located at the Pylesville station.

While members on both sides of the border pledged to continue cooperative response to emergencies, the split seems permanent.

At the heart of the schism was the inequitable share of expenses borne by Harford taxpayers: over 90 percent of government aid to the company in the past decade, or about $1.2 million.

The immediate issue was a decision by the Pennsylvania members to deny purchase of a modern ambulance for the Pylesville station, while approving an expensive new fire engine for the Fawn Grove station. The company's only medic unit is at the Pennsylvania station.

The newly seceded Harford unit calls itself the Norrisville Volunteer Fire Company, the station on Harkins Road being closer to that town than to Pylesville.

Differences in local government between the two states contributed to the disparity in fire company funding. Fawn Grove is a town and borough, a much smaller entity than Harford County. But the company's first station was located there; the Pylesville station opened in 1982.

The Pennsylvanians may have felt their volunteer efforts and fund-raising success made up for the discrepancy in governmental funding. (Among Harford's 12 volunteer fire companies, county contributions of about $3 million annually account for only half of all cash receipts.)

In any case, the Delta side apparently had the majority of votes in the company, which ultimately led to the Harford secession.

Of course, control of the emergency equipment is a crucial issue for volunteer firefighters. If you're not near the equipment, someone else will likely get the first chance at op

erating it. And that diminishes the attraction of being a volunteer.

It should be noted that there's no suggestion of financial peculation in the use of Delta-Cardiff funds, only a dispute among members over how to use the money.

There's another cross-border project that's hung up on the question of money. It involves construction of public sewer service for about 200 properties in the Whiteford and Cardiff areas, many of which are now served by inadequate septic systems that could endanger water wells in the vicinity.

The proposal is to hook up with Delta borough's new treatment plant, which will be built next year. The plant has Pennsylvania state funding and will be constructed whether the Harford communities decide to join or not.

Harford property owners are to vote by the end of this month whether to go ahead with the sewer line extension and expanded capacity for the Delta plant.

The immediate problem is the Harford cost: $5.2 million for extending the lines and capacity. That breaks out to $2,300 a year for 20 years for each property, in addition to quarterly bills and hookup fees.

Harford authorities hope that this assessment can be cut by two-thirds through state and federal grants and loans. The county also hopes to help, although the sewer fund requires that users pay their own way.

The joint sewer proposal was under consideration for more than three decades, until Pennsylvania ordered Delta to build the public waste treatment facility. The borough remains open to linking Harford homes with the plant, but it warns that the invitation will not be extended again after the facility is completed.

But there's a point of concern that's similar to the fire company dispute. Delta would own the entire plant. The borough has rejected a proposal crafted by the Mason-Dixon Business Association to let Harford buy a piece of the works.

Given the possibility of a health department order to shut down failing septic systems in the future, the Delta connection may be the most sensible, most economical way for the Harford communities to proceed.

As long as the benefits accrue to neighbors on each side of the state border, these cooperative ventures will continue to flourish.

We're hopeful that this collaboration will still prevail in fire protection for that region, regardless of where the fire truck is parked.

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

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