Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Who Will Call the Question on WSSC?

It has been more than a month since the life-threatening water pipe break on River Road. And while Montgomery County Council Members have begun to raise questions, a solution to WSSC’s problems does not appear in sight.

The basic cause of dysfunction at WSSC is its paralyzed six-member commission. With three members each appointed by the County Executives of Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, the commission has been unable to agree on the selection of a new general manager or on a financing plan for capital improvements. The commission’s failures continue despite the fact that WSSC’s former general manager warned in 2007 that catastrophic pipe failures could explode “like a missile.”

We have already documented the unbelievable behavior of the Prince George's County commissioners. But even if they are someday replaced by competent successors, the counties’ divergent economic interests are a factor in the dispute over capital financing. In February 2008, Montgomery’s commissioners preferred a plan that would charge all customers the same fee, while Prince George’s commissioners wanted to tie capital fees to property values. Each jurisdiction feels the other wants to burden it with an unfair share of capital costs. If a compromise is ever reached, it seems inevitable that the capital plan will be underfunded because of these different points of view.

Since WSSC is a state-chartered, bi-county entity, any changes to the agency’s governance must result from state action. Delegate Brian Feldman (D-15) and Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18), the two chairs of Montgomery’s delegation, are interested in having the Governor appoint a tie-breaking vote to the commission. Delegate Al Carr (D-18) would like to see a seventh commissioner appointed from one of the municipalities in the two counties. Either proposal may break the short-term stalemate over capital financing and perhaps even result in the appointment of a new general manager. But that does not deal with the long-run disagreement between the counties. As the wealthier jurisdiction, Montgomery may be better able to invest more resources in the system than Prince George’s. But because WSSC governance is shared, only two outcomes are possible:

1. The two sides will meet somewhere in the middle on financing rates, thereby shorting capital improvements systemwide.

2. Montgomery will have to pay a greater burden and effectively subsidize improvements in Prince George’s.

Neither of the above outcomes are acceptable to Montgomery residents. And Prince George’s County politicians are already resisting proposals to allow Montgomery to spend more of its own money on its own pipes.

Over the long run, there are three reform options.

1. Bifurcate the system as is the case with M-NCPPC. Some core functions will be shared, but the two counties will finance their pieces of the system separately.

2. Total divorce, with the assets split between the two counties.

3. Sell the system to a private entity.

Privatization should at least be explored, but given Maryland’s political leanings, it almost certainly will not happen. That leaves the two separation options. Either of them would require significant study time by the state and action by the General Assembly. But this issue cannot simply be left to the state. The elected leaders at the county level have an obligation to state their view on what should be done.

And what have they said so far? The Post described County Executive Ike Leggett’s reaction to the River Road pipe break this way:

Last month's water main break, which was shown extensively on national television, was the third major disruption to a WSSC pipeline in the past six months. In the days after the River Road flood, Leggett and [Prince George’s County Executive Jack] Johnson pledged to work together.

Leggett cautioned against a legislative effort, saying this week that any changes would require a partnership with Prince George's leaders. “You’re not going to change the governance unless you have a collaborative approach,” he said.
Attempting cooperation with Jack Johnson is exactly what Ike Leggett did after the last pipe break in Derwood. That effort failed. No general manager was hired. No capital plan was approved. Jack Johnson would rather go on secret trips to Africa than ensure safe water service for his constituents. The only thing worse than failure is repeating failure.

The Montgomery County Council has reacted more strongly. Consider these statements from the following Council Members:

Nancy Floreen, Chairwoman of the council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee:

Montgomery Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, who leads a County Council panel that oversees water infrastructure, said it may be time for the counties to divide the system.

“It’s long been an issue,” Floreen said. “Maybe this is the time to take a long, hard look at going our separate ways.”
Council President Phil Andrews:

There is now a real safety threat because of the lack of sufficient infrastructure replacement... It's partly money [but] there also has to be a way to get decisions made by the commission.
Valerie Ervin:

The WSSC has been an issue for many years in terms of the governance of this bi-county agency because there are even numbers of representation from Prince George's County and our county -- and there always seems to be a deadlock.
George Leventhal:
I do think it’s true that this marriage is not working and we need a divorce.
Marc Elrich:

Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park said that he’s interested in splitting the regional water and sewer system between the two counties as soon as possible. “Seems to me we shouldn't be held hostage to their desires on the other side,” he said.
Duchy Trachtenberg:

It's time to play some hardball and to legislate or litigate... We are going to have to force a conversation about responsibility.
This is a matter of leadership. And given the explosive nature of the pipe breaks, it is also potentially a matter of life and death. The County Executive must push for dramatic long-term change and not settle for mere “cooperation.” But if he does not take a stand, then the County Council must step up with a common position on long-term structural reform and make their preference known to the state. The clock is ticking until the next giant break. And we the voters are watching.