A task force studying whether the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission should be sold to a private operator concluded its deliberations yesterday without making a formal recommendation on what to do with the giant water and sewer utility serving Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
The 15-member group, which the legislature created last year to examine privatization, adopted three general suggestions for restructuring the agency, including the transfer of some services to the county governments.
But the task force declined even to rank the recommendations, leaving that process to a nine-member committee made up of elected leaders from both counties.
"We just reached a point where we felt it wasn't our role to say what it is we should do," said Duane W. Oates, who headed the task force with a fellow WSSC commissioner, Kevin P. Maloney. "Even given 12 months, there still wasn't enough research for us to be latching on to one thing definitively."
Maloney and others said Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) ultimately should decide what to do about the utility. But others noted that the two counties long have differed on WSSC policy matters.
"That's going to be one of the problems," said state Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D), chairman of the Prince George's delegation in the House of Delegates. "You've thrown it in the court of both county executives. It's going to be very hard for them."
The task force report recommends that some agency responsibilities--such as issuing permits and doing inspections--be transfered to the county governments. The report also recommends that the two counties reach an agreement on how to streamline the agency.
A third recommendation urged the two counties to continue to evaluate privatization as an option.
Some task force members said yesterday that the findings of the 700-page study, which cost taxpayers $200,000, were inconclusive on privatization.
"The case for privatization has not been made," said state Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's), a member of the task force.
Dorman said he was alarmed by the study's finding that rates could increase up to 65 percent if the utility were sold to a private company. "The figure of 65 percent increase in rates frightens me," he said.
Maloney said he was among the minority of task force members who supported the sale of the utility, which could fetch as much as $3 billion.
But he said the findings did make clear that the agency has to be restructured in some way.
The WSSC answers to the state and to the two county governments. Its rates are not subject to review by the Public Service Commission, the only utility in Maryland that is not under its control.
"The problem with WSSC is the political governance," Maloney said. "It doesn't work. The political governance has interfered with its mission."
Montgomery County Council Chairman Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) said the new committee of elected leaders will be able to address political issues in the interim, while the issue of privatization continues to be debated.
"This process will allow us to get to those hot-button issues right away," he said.