Meeting set today in water dispute Shut-off, rate increase irritate residents

October 08, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

State officials will meet today with the owner of a private water company serving a 30-year-old subdivision outside Westminster to ensure that residents will not lose water again.

Forty-two residents in the 11-home subdivision were without water for slightly more than 24 hours beginning Monday until state officials came to their rescue Tuesday.

More rescuing might occur today.

"Basically, we want to make certain they continue to have water and that this situation doesn't occur again," said Nancy Reilman, a division chief with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Residents believe the shut-off was intended to make them pay a tenfold rate increase that the owner, Bramble Hills Water Supply Co., levied Aug. 17. State officials said the rate, which increased from $6 per 1,000 gallons to $60 per 1,000, is the highest in Maryland.

However, Bradford I. Webb of Westminster, attorney for well-owner Ann Freed of Sykesville, said the shut-off was unrelated to the rate increase, despite the fact that "some people have not paid their bills at all."

Webb disputed a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. official's assertion Tuesday that John W. Freed, the owner's husband, asked the utility to turn off the power to the well's pumping station Monday.

"I still think it was the previous owner," said Webb. "I know for a fact that the account was not in Dr. [Ann] Freed's name until Tuesday."

Webb said he was surprised by a "show cause order" issued by the Maryland Public Service Commission yesterday, ordering his client to accept the commission's right to regulate "any and all rates, charges, fees and assessments" imposed upon the residents -- or show cause otherwise.

The order "sounds like grandstanding," Webb said. "My clients initiated contact with the Maryland Department of the Environment earlier this summer to determine what category -- [private or public] -- this water would come within."

MDE official Reilman agreed that the owner had contacted her department this summer, but not the Public Service Commission, which sets utility rates.

"Our engineer visited the water facility" after hearing from Freed, but "the complete information" needed to determine that it is a public facility was not finished "until this past week," she said.

The MDE "had been notified four or five years ago that the well served under 25 people and it was placed on inactive status," meaning it was a private well outside the purview of government regulations, Reilman said.

As late as yesterday, residents were providing information about themselves and their water bills to the department in preparation for today's meeting at 1: 30 p.m. with Freed, Webb and officials from the Public Service Commission and the Department of the Environment.

During the closed meeting, the parties will talk about ownership, the water company's inventory, and explain the safety requirements of operating a well, Reilman said.

Public Service Commission Chairman Glenn F. Ivey said the commission is doing a follow-up on the Bramble Hills water situation "to coordinate a lot better with the counties and the Maryland Department of the Environment."

If Freed and her attorney agree that the water company rate is governed by the commission, "then talk about it could begin immediately," Ivey said.

Webb said that point is not in dispute.

"We will do what the state tells us we have to do," he said.

But that "will probably cost the users an enormous amount of money -- perhaps the highest rates in the state," he said.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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