Water/Wastewater Bill Brings Tensions to a Boiling Point – Hagerstown Work Session Recap

HAGERSTOWN – Tuesday afternoon’s work session, 13 February 2024, began with an approval of the request from the staff of the Hager House Visitor Center to apply for a Maryland Heritage Area Authority (MHAA) grant of $50,000. If obtained, this grant will help fund the first phase of demolition and renovation occurring at the Visitor Center, specifically aiding in the fabrication of new exhibits.

Deputy Director of Electric Operations Nathan Fridinger, Director of Utilities Nancy Hausrath, and Jake Thomas with GDS Associates opened a discussion on a Cost-of-Service Analysis study currently in progress to determine a new structure for retail electric rates. As it stands, the Hagerstown Light Department’s cash balance is set to be depleted within the next few fiscal years despite efforts to lower costs by deferring maintenance/improvements and reducing staff levels. This indicates the need for a potential increase in rates, mirroring the nationwide trend. The findings of the CSA study will be used to provide a rate adjustment case before the Maryland Public Service Commission (MDPSC), which is set to be filed by the end of April 2024.

City Engineer Jim Bender introduced the Pavement Preservation Program lists for fiscal years 25-27. The program utilizes a combination of milling/overlay, patching, and crack filling to improve streets that show signs of deterioration based on a condition survey conducted every three years. It typically spends about $1.3 million on these improvements using Highway User Revenue (HUR) funds. If funds are not sufficient, certain street pavings will be delayed as needed. Based on recent statements from the State, HUR funding is currently expected to stay flat for the next few fiscal years. The Council will review and possibly approve the FY 25 overlay list, as well as the pavement preservation lists for FY 26 and FY 27, at their regular session meeting on Feb. 27.

The work session concluded with a lengthy discussion on a bill of local interest, SB 1078. The coalition had previously put forth a lobbying effort to acquire state funding (about $1.0 million) in order to create a water/wastewater master plan covering the next 25-30 years. This plan was meant to detail the ways in which the system would expand and be maintained according to guidelines. However, the bill that came out last week did not in any way resemble what the coalition had requested, essentially establishing a task force to determine how the water/wastewater system of Washington County was governed rather than how the system could be expanded and improved. City Administrator Scott Nicewarner recommended that the Council introduce amendments to the bill in order to make it more closely resemble the initial coalition appeal.

Councilmember Kristin Aleshire expressed confusion with the discrepancies between the bill and the coalition’s original request. He also emphasized his concern that the bill includes all facilities in Washington County despite the fact that the other towns and cities who own those facilities were not consulted beforehand. Councilmember Peter Perini, Sr. responded to these concerns by suggesting that the Council gut the bill via extensive amendments in order to receive funding for the coalition’s master plan. If the bill subsequently passed without any such amendments, the city could vehemently oppose it.

Mayor Tekesha Martinez agreed with Aleshire’s disapproval of the idea that a bill was crafted without communicating with all affected parties. She asserted that this put Hagerstown in a bad light, as it implied the city was attempting to strong-arm other municipalities by speaking for them. She found this completely unacceptable, considering the city is attempting to encourage collaboration between these municipalities.

Councilmember Tiara Burnett was inclined to request that the delegation cancel the bill outright due to concerns that the Council wouldn’t be able to get it amended. Perini pointed out that this would leave the money on the table, and that there would be no chance of receiving it for the originally intended study. Ultimately, the Council adopted a tentative plan to draft a letter requesting that the bill be revised to accurately resemble the coalition’s intended proposal.