Friday, November 21, 2008

WSSC Needs to Get Flushed, Part Two

In Part One, I described the bewildering problems my neighborhood is having with WSSC’s pipe replacement procedures. If we had issues of this kind with any other county agency, we could contact the County Executive’s office, our County Council Members or our regional services center. But WSSC is different. It is a bi-county agency governed by a six-member commission with three members each from Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. The commissioners are appointed by their County Executive and confirmed by their County Council, but they are then charged with overseeing the affairs of the agency. And that is where the trouble starts.

Last February, former General Manager Andrew Brunhart recommended instituting a fee to pay for infrastructure replacement, a proposal killed by the commissioners from Prince George’s County. According to the Washington Post, Brunhart told the commission that failure to pass the infrastructure fee “communicated to WSSC and to our ratepayers that decaying infrastructure is acceptable to the governing body” and that he would he would “recommend dropping the words ‘entrusted,’ ‘reliable’ and ‘clean’ from the WSSC mission statement.” Brunhart had previously said that hundreds of homes in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties were at risk of cataclysmic pipe failure that would generate an explosion like “a missile.”

After Brunhart’s departure, the commission deadlocked along county lines and could not agree on a successor. WSSC’s leaders could agree on one thing, however: Montgomery County’s Inspector General was denied access to the agency’s records for an audit. Next came a giant pipe break in Derwood and direct intervention by the two County Executives in finding a new General Manager. But after repeated delays, no one knows when a new General Manager will be hired. And now Montgomery's commission members have told the Gazette that they "have a lack of trust in our fellow commissioners."

Even the best General Manager cannot compensate for WSSC’s biggest problem: a divided commission. The rate dispute revealed that the commissioners have different agendas along county lines. The Prince George’s members successfully battled against a $6 monthly fee for infrastructure replacement because it was regressive. Montgomery’s members were willing to adopt the flat fee but not a Prince George’s proposal to tie the fee to property values, thereby shifting most of the infrastructure cost to Montgomery. The end result: no fee at all. If the two boards were separate, would they have been able to develop different infrastructure proposals covering each county by itself?

Some suggest having the Governor appoint a tie-breaking commissioner while others would like to see a complete divorce between the counties. An alternative model for WSSC is the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), a bi-county agency that is comprised of two autonomous boards that each oversee county-specific park and planning departments.

But if this agency is not reformed one way or another, things are going to get a lot worse. And then more pipes – and tempers – will explode.