Control of plant may shift to county

Commissioners want to take over troubled facility at high school

April 07, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

In a move toward greater county government control of school construction projects, the Carroll commissioners said yesterday that they want to take over a high school's troubled wastewater treatment plant from the board of education.

If the plan is approved by the school board, the county would inherit a project with a slew of problems.

School officials built Francis Scott Key High School's $800,000 plant last year without the required state permits and may be required to pay thousands of dollars in state penalties and be forced to dismantle it at taxpayers' expense.

Without permits, the plant cannot operate. The school system is paying almost $110,000 a year to haul about 7,000 gallons of raw sewage each day from the high school near Union Bridge to Westminster's treatment plant.

School officials have been scrambling to find a place to release the effluent so the plant can start operating, but no tak- ers have been found.

Soon, county officials may take over these responsibilities.

"We want to cooperate and try to find a solution to this problem," said County Commissioner Donald I. Dell.

Dell said the county has the experience and state contacts that may help resolve the plant's problems. Dell also said the county could play a larger role in other school construction projects.

"We may take over some other projects if this works out well," he said.

School officials appear willing to let them.

Board President Gary W. Bauer said he would not object to county control of the treatment plant at Francis Scott Key High School.

"I'll agree with that. I think the school board would surrender that to them," he said.

`Easier for them'

The school board and county commissioners will meet at 3 p.m. today in the County Office Building to discuss school construction issues.

Bauer said the county government could assist with the construction of water and sewer lines, roads and other infrastructure.

"The county could do a better job than we can. They have the ability to do things that we haven't done. It would be easier for them to do it," he said.

The county's Bureau of Utilities manages wastewater treatment plants at Runnymede Middle School and South Carroll High School.

If the county took over Francis Scott Key High School's plant, it would be the first time the board of education has surrendered control of a project before its completion.

The county commissioners emphasized that they did not want to wrest power from the board of education. They view it as a joint effort to solve problems.

"We'd like to work cooperatively," Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said yesterday.

Francis Scott Key High is the latest troubled project in Carroll, which has undertaken a $106 million school construction program to meet enrollment increases. Since raising taxes four years ago to pay for the schools, four of the first five projects are over budget by more than $2 million total. Two did not open on time.

Built in farm fields about 10 miles from Westminster, Francis Scott Key is undergoing a $16 million renovation and addition project. One of the main components of the construction project is the replacement of the school's inadequate 40-year-old septic system, which funnels wastewater into a series of underground rock fields.

The school system tore up the rock fields and planned to replace them with a treatment plant that would carry effluent across nearby properties to a tributary of Little Pipe Creek. Neighbors stopped that plan last year, arguing that the effluent would damage the stream.

School system officials have been looking for a new discharge point since.

Under state law, the school system was required to obtain one permit to release the effluent into the Little Pipe Creek tributary and a second to build the treatment plant.

School officials applied for both permits, but built the plant without receiving either, state officials said.

In a lawsuit filed last month, a neighbor has demanded that the Maryland Department of Environment assess penalties against the board of education for its actions. The suit also asked that the plant be dismantled.

If the county takes over the treatment plant, it would be responsible for finding a new discharge point for the plant. The legal issues would remain the responsibility of the board of education.

`Time is really money'

The project would fall under the control of J. Michael Evans, director of the county Department of Public Works. Evans recommended releasing the effluent in Little Pipe Creek at Ladiesburg Road and Route 75, which would require a state permit.

School officials favor releasing the effluent into the Union Bridge sewage system, which doesn't require a state permit. That plan would cost more money.

It is important to move quickly, Evans said. Taxpayers will continue to be charged $9,000 a month to haul sewage until a solution is found.

"In this case, time is really money," Evans said.

Pub Date: 4/07/99

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