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Environmentby Mark Reutter7:49 amJun 27, 20120

Baltimore water, sewer rates set to jump 9% in fifth yearly increase

Above: It will cost the average city household about $86 more to flush over the next year due to increases in city sewage and state “flush” fees.

The typical Baltimore area household will see their water and sewer bills rise to nearly $1,200 a year following today’s approval by the Board of Estimates of a 9% rate hike for fiscal 2013.

The jump will increase the annual water and sewer charges for a family of four from $1,073 to $1,170, according to the city Department of Finance.

This does not include the separate Chesapeake Bay Restoration fee, or “flush tax,” that was passed by the General Assembly this year and will double from $30 to $60 a year beginning on July 1.

This fee is designed to make improvements to the state’s 67 major sewer treatment plants that discharge into Bay waters.

The Baltimore rate increases – scheduled to go into effect tomorrow (June 28) – will affect residents of both Baltimore city and county under an intergovernmental agreement. A 9% rate increase is also expected for consumers using “city water” in Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties.

Nearly 50% Increase Since 2008

The hike in city fees will be the fifth in the last five years, which have pushed up residential water and sewer bills by nearly 50% since 2008. (Rates were increased 4% in 2008, 9% in 2009, 9% in 2010 and 9% in 2011.)

The increases come at a time when the accuracy of city water bills have come under question.

A critical audit report in February by City Comptroller’s office found that the Bureau of Water and Wastewater overcharged more than 35,000 customer accounts $4.3 million over the last three years.

The city has refunded the overcharges and has pledged to end the practice of estimating bills.

Sparrows Point Didn’t Pay its Bill

At the same time, Baltimore has failed to collect $5.4 million in water bills from the the largest private user of its water system.

The Brew disclosed that RG Steel’s Sparrows Point steel mill has systematically underpaid – or not paid – for the 50 million gallons of water and treated sewage water it consumed daily at its facility.

In one account, the steel company failed to make any payments in 30 months, running up a $3.68 million account deficit.

RG Steel filed for bankruptcy protection last month, and lawyers hired by Baltimore city have filed claims for the money owed from the company’s estate. As unsecured debt, the likelihood of collecting the debt is slim.

Water System Must be Self-Sustaining

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other city officials say the increase in water and sewer fees is necessary to comply with agreements with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Maryland Department of the Environment, which have repeatedly cited Baltimore as a violator of the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws.

A consent decree with the regulators requires the city to place covers over several small reservoirs used for drinking water and to upgrade the Jones Falls, Herring Run and Gwynns Falls sewer systems, which dump untreated sewage into the Chesapeake Bay during heavy storms.

Under a City Charter amendment passed by voters in 1978, the city’s water and sewer facilities must be maintained as self-sustaining operations. As a result, any additional costs of the system are automatically passed onto residential and business users.

The 9% rate hike scheduled today before the five-member Board of Estimates will push up the annual cost of water for a typical Baltimore household to $500 a year.

The sewage fee will add $670 to the annual cost, according to figures from the Department of Public Works.

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