State PSC Hears Artesian Case; Will Decide on Sale of Cecil County Water, Sewer Plants Soon
The Maryland Public Service Commission refused Wednesday to delay a hearing on the proposed sale of most Cecil County-owned water and sewer plants to the private Artesian firm, but the panel put off a decision on the sale until after an 8/19/11 deadline for filing additional documents with the state agency.
Cecil County Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) appeared at the PSC’s Baltimore offices to seek a delay in the hearing, since County Commissioners had voted in a closed-door session on Tuesday to fire the county’s long-time attorney, Larry Haislip, who had represented the county in the Artesian sale for several years.
But County Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) told the PSC that the county board had never actually voted to request a delay of the PSC hearing. Hodge and Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) voted against firing the attorney.
The proceeding before the PSC did not directly involve the county government, since the panel was reviewing the application by Artesian to operate the facilities and set fees for customers. The three-member PSC panel voted unanimously to proceed with the hearing, which was broadcast live over the Internet.
Opponents of the Artesian sale were represented by local resident Ed Cairns, speaking on behalf of the Appleton Regional Community Alliance (ARCA) and the Cecil Land Use Alliance (CLUA). ARCA’s attorney did not appear.
ARCA filed a lawsuit that delayed the sale for nearly three years and cost county taxpayers over $203,000 in legal fees. The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled against ARCA and in favor of the legality of the sale recently.
Cairns reiterated many of the group’s previous arguments and asserted that in case of a “severe drought” some of Artesian’s out of state sources of water, especially from Pennsylvania, could be “limited.” Under questioning by PSC members, Cairns acknowledged that even in the worst 2002 drought, water supplies were not cut off. “We can’t predict the future about droughts,” he said.
Cairns said the county would have the ability to draw water directly from the Susquehanna River in Maryland to offset possible drought problems. He said Artesian drew water from the river in Pennsylvania and then shipped it via its pipelines into Maryland.
But Artesian’s lawyer shot that argument down, saying that Cecil County has no equipment and no legally mandated permit to draw water from the Susquehanna, while Artesian has both. He pointed out that Artesian recently forged an agreement with the town of Port Deposit, which is directly on the river and has authority to draw water. Artesian has more water supply options than Cecil County does, the lawyer said, because the firm can draw water from Delaware, Pennsylvania and the Susquehanna.
Former Cecil County Commissioner William Manlove testified in support of the Artesian application, saying that the lack of water and sewer services in the county had hampered development of the designated “growth corridor” for many years. Cecil County is “a low wealth county” and the government cannot afford to expand services, he said, while Artesian could provide such services “at no cost to the taxpayers” and Artesian “has more money than the county” to do so.
Manlove said that during his first term as a commissioner, from 1978-1982, the board did obtain a permit to draw water from the Susquehanna but subsequent boards let if “lapse” and the county now has no authority to tap the river for water supplies.
Gene Cochrane of Earleville testified about a county task force on water needs on which he served that studied water issues for six months and produced a 75-page report. He said the panel urged integration of services, instead of a patchwork of county and municipal and private operations. The panel recommended the county consider “privatization” of services and he said the Artesian takeover is a “furtherance” of the recommendations.
The PSC advised supporters and opponents that any further arguments or documentation must be submitted by Aug. 19 and the commission will make a decision shortly thereafter.