Area sewer plan offered

Howard County executive proposes water authority for Baltimore region

`Potential for doing good'

Suggestion is meant to relieve city's burden

April 18, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With Baltimore's aging water system afflicted by broken pipes and the city burdened with a $900 million federally ordered sewer replacement program, Howard County officials are proposing a possible route to relief.

James N. Robey, Howard's county executive, has suggested forming a regional water and sewer authority that would take some of the financial burden off the city in return for giving more control to the suburban counties whose residents use city water.

Robey said the idea is a preliminary concept without any details. He mentioned it recently to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens while they were all together in Annapolis.

"It may not work" when details are closely examined, Robey said, "but it has potential for doing good in the entire region."

O'Malley said he's interested.

"Almost every month, somebody approaches me or the city wanting to buy our water system from us. It is one of the most valuable capital assets the people of Baltimore have," the mayor said Friday.

"This is the first time anybody's really pitched [a regional authority], so I'm interested in it, especially if it could strengthen that asset," he said. "I'm open to exploring having a metropolitan entity."

The 3,400 miles of pipes that supply water to 1.8 million people in the Baltimore metropolitan area are owned by Baltimore, but each county that customers live in -- Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard -- pays a share of the costs. It is a self-supporting system. The sewer system, blamed for leaking millions of gallons of sewage, covers an additional 1,340 miles of pipes.

Over the winter, city-owned water pipes manufactured as recently as the 1970s burst with disturbing regularity, leaving thousands of residents, businesses and schools without water for days, from Towson to Randallstown and Catonsville to northern Anne Arundel County. Last year there were 1,190 breaks in Baltimore's water system, an average of more than three a day, or 34 per 100 miles over the past two years. In 2002, there were 1,140 breaks, city Department of Public Works officials said.

Instead of sharply increasing water and sewer rates over a short time to pay for the system renovations, Howard's public works Director James M. Irvin suggested that the counties could use their borrowing power to lengthen the fund-raising process, flattening out the increases, Robey said.

"The city is facing huge costs" to rebuild the century-old water and sewer system, while most of the system's growth is occurring in the suburbs, Robey said.

Baltimore's water rates have more than doubled since 1998 and are due to increase 27 percent through 2006. Rates in most counties increased last year, and Howard's rates are due to rise starting July 1.

"The opportunity would be to try to stem the increases, flatten out the spikes in money," Irvin said.

The city can borrow money to meet the federal mandate, Irvin said, but the debt would count against Baltimore's credit rating.

If the counties add their borrowing power, "you might do it over 20 years instead of over three," Irvin said.

"There are problems like this all over the country, and the cities don't have the financial resources to make the upgrade. The backbone core of the system is owned by the city but is going to be increasingly needed by the counties," Irvin said.

The regional water and sewer authority could be modeled after the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority. Irvin is chairman of the 24-year-old waste authority -- which coordinates financing and helps governments and other public agencies dispose of trash. Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Montgomery counties, as well as Baltimore City, participate.

The waste authority operates four facilities -- three waste-to-energy plants and one that converts sewage sludge to compost, said Robin B. Davidov, the executive director. "Our money comes from managing the projects," she said, noting that the authority has no facilities in Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel, so those jurisdictions pay annual fees for the services they receive.

The Howard proposal has drawn mixed reactions.

Smith, the Baltimore County executive, said he's willing to work with O'Malley and Robey "to explore the idea" if they want to pursue it.

A spokesman for Owens said she's engrossed in her own annual budget preparations and hasn't had time to give Robey's suggestion serious thought.

David Rusk -- a consultant, former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., and author of several Abell Foundation studies of Baltimore's problems -- said the mayor is wise to see the utility system as an asset.

"It ought to be leveraged in a way that gets some real regional cooperation on other common problems," he said.

But Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, had no reservations.

"I think it's a fantastic idea," he said. "I think the idea certainly merits serious consideration. It solves two problems. It flattens the rate increases and helps the city fix failing infrastructure." The question, he added, is whether the city is willing to give up some ownership and control to gain help with financing.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, was more cautious.

"I didn't think the city should have sold the airport. It's one of the growing assets of the region," he said. But if the counties can help the city finance the utility repairs, he said, "this might be a great answer."

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