Water rates not changed by meeting Officials talk safety, leave cost for later

Expenses high, says owner

Many bills not paid for years, she says

October 09, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons and James M. Coram | Sheridan Lyons and James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

A meeting between state officials and the owner of one of Maryland's smallest private water companies yesterday will ensure its customers clean drinking water, but it didn't resolve the issue of a recent tenfold increase in the water rate.

While primarily informational, the closed 2 1/2 -hour meeting -- which included owner Ann Freed of Sykesville and engineers from the Public Service Commission -- was a good one, said Nancy P. Reilman, chief of the Safe Drinking Water Act Implementation Division of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"We wanted to inform the owner of state requirements for public water systems and to discuss the options available for future provision of water," she said. "The owner is looking into some of these options for operating that system."

Freed's Bramble Hills Water Supply Co. increased its rate from $6 per 1,000 gallons to $60 per 1,000 gallons Aug. 17 -- making it one of the highest rates in the state.

On Monday afternoon, the water was turned off to the 11 homes the company serves in a 30-year-old subdivision near Westminster. Residents complained to county health officials, who turned to the state. The water remained off for about 24 hours, until state officials intervened.

"We want to make certain that people have water," Reilman said. The Public Service Commission will deal with the rate increase -- a subject to be explored further.

"At this point, we are awaiting a further decision from the owners," Reilman said, emphasizing that the rate issue is the province of the PSC. The commission engineers present yesterday do not deal with rates.

The new rate "would definitely be one of the highest," said Reilman, who gave Freed a standard MDE letter for new systems, covering areas such as how to sample for bacteria or nitrates. "Based on tests prior to 1994, we don't suspect any problems," she said.

Bramble Hills is one of the smallest of the 1,000 systems in the state, Reilman said. It had been listed as "inactive" by the state before 1994, apparently because at the time it had fewer than 25 customers.

The threshold for MDE regulation is 15 hookups or 25 people. MDE learned only recently that Bramble Hills has more than 25 customers and is beginning to regulate, Reilman said.

'I didn't realize'

Freed said yesterday that she was unaware she was buying a water company when she picked up the property as part of an 18-acre foreclosure in July -- even though she had helped manage it.

"I was managing his property into solvency," she said. "I didn't realize [the water company] was part of the foreclosure. I thought it was a different deal. I'm a professional person. I don't want to run a little company."

Freed said regulatory agency officials told her at yesterday's meeting that she could hire someone to run the company and that the expense could be factored into the rate. That would mean she would have to hire an accountant at $200 to $300 a month and keep a plumber on standby reserve for at least $2,000 a year, she said.

Bills unpaid

"But who is going to pay the accountant until they [residents] pay the bill?" she said. "Some of the residents have not paid water bills in more than three years and one has not paid a bill ever. I'm faced with people who for years have had a free ride. I don't blame them. If they could do it without consequences, why not?

"But if I have to pay $50,000 more [to bring the system into compliance] -- even if I can borrow the money and amortize the loan in the rates -- how am I going to pay it back unless they pay?"

Freed said she has spent $5,000 to put in a service road to the pumping station and thinks she will be stuck with the bill.

"Somebody has to pick up the ball -- not me," she said. "This system is over 30 years old. There are 45 users. It used to be private but grew up and suddenly became big."

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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