After years of lobbying by advocates for water customers struggling to pay fast-rising water rates, Baltimore’s City Council last night unveiled an income-based proposal that also sets up an appeals mechanism intended to give customers an independent board to resolve billing disputes.
Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the measure would go a long way towards relieving Baltimore’s poorest residents from water bills that not only have been increasing but are sometimes inaccurate.
“As an elected official, it’s my job to make sure every single Baltimorean has access to safe and affordable water, but to also make sure they have city departments accountable to the public,” Young said at a news conference.
He was surrounded by representatives from the Food & Water Watch, Baltimore Right to Water Coalition and others who have repeatedly pressed his office on the issue.
Introduced last night with all 14 Council members signed on as co-sponsors, Bill 18-0307 would cap the amount of water bills on a sliding scale for low-income households.
The bill will be taken up by the Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee.
For those who make less than 50% of the poverty level, the cap would be 1%. For those whose income is from 100%-200% of the poverty level, the bills would be capped at 3%.
Young’s bill also would also create an “Office of Water Customer Advocacy and Appeals” conceived as a neutral intermediary between customers and the Department of Public Works.
The office would be headed by a “Customer Advocate” who would investigate and try to help solve water billing issues.
The office would be overseen by a new seven-member Oversight Committee comprised of the City Council President and three members of the Council as well as the city auditor, inspector general and DPW director.
Rates Increasing Again
Young’s bill comes on the heels of an announcement by DPW that caught some officials by surprise – a three-year, 30% increase in water and sewer rates. The rate hike would raise water rates by 9.9% each year through June 2022 and sewer rates by 9% annually.
DPW Director Rudy Chow said at a news conference that the increases are needed to cover repairs and upgrades that should have been performed years ago on Baltimore’s aging infrastructure.
“We can no longer kick the can down the road, we have to address this,” Chow said.
Chow also announced DPW’s version of water bill relief, a discount on water rates for households with incomes below 175% of the federal poverty level, which is currently $36,365 a year for a three-person family.
Mary Grant, who directs Food & Water Watch’s “Water for All” campaign, said DPW’s “Baltimore H2O Assists” program is inadequate because it doesn’t cap bills, as Young’s measure does.
“The Council bill takes the United Nations standard – that no household should pay more than 3% of income for water – and codifies it in Baltimore,” Grant said. “It’s a much more comprehensive solution.”
At a hearing in 2016, Councilman Bill Henry pointed out that Baltimore residents living on less than $25,000 a year (about a third of all city households) are paying more than 3.6% of their income for sewer and water service.
“Our water rates exceed global standards,” Henry said at the time, addressing a packed hearing room. “That is why we are here.”