Argument between Friends

September 12, 1995

This is the kind of thing you don't see in glossy articles on Annapolis in travel magazines: the lowdown on a dispute between the city and the U.S. Naval Academy over, of all things, a sewer bill.

The dispute appears headed for arbitration, which is where it belongs. Both sides seem to recognize they have good reason to settle this little squabble amicably. The city and the academy have always been good neighbors, a fact that has helped both their images.

Regardless of who's right and who's wrong in this instance, both will look petty if they end up going to war over a sewer bill.

In fact, the situation is far from that serious, despite a much ballyhooed letter to the Navy from City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke, in which he says the city could possibly cut off the academy's sewer service if the academy takes a hard line. The academy claims it is owed $356,000, the result of overbilling caused by a sandbag dropped in a sewage line by city workers about five years ago. The sandbag supposedly blocked the pipe and caused the meter incorrectly to register an increase in sewage. The city claims the sandbag was dropped by academy workers, who also were doing construction in the area. It refused the academy's offer to settle for $150,000, at which point the Navy decided to play hardball. It announced it would begin deducting $15,000 from its quarterly sewage bills until it had recouped the entire $356,000.

That's when Mr. Goetzke wrote the Navy that the city could cut off its sewer service. But a better idea, he said, was binding arbitration in the interests of "the long-standing relationship between our institutions." The overall tone was conciliatory, and the Navy has responded in kind.

So who dropped the sandbag? No one seems to know for sure. But it's clear that in the past the city has been more than fair to the academy regarding such matters. The city has never made a big deal about getting its money when the academy was underbilled, and it has always adjusted the academy's bill once a problem was brought to its attention. This case was no exception. The Annapolis City Council probably would have been wise to have accepted the $150,000 and let the matter end there. But both sides obviously feel strongly that they're in the right. A civilized resolution by an independent arbitrator is the way to go.

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