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Fresh Water, Foul Sewage

Accountabilityby Fern Shen1:00 pmJan 9, 20190

Spending board, controlled by Mayor Pugh, raises Baltimore water rates again

“An open question whether these rates are justified,” Comptroller Pratt says, voting “no” along with Council President Young

Above: “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Mayor Catherine Pugh (far right) said, voting “yes” on a 30%, three-year water rate increase. Comptroller Joan Pratt and Council President Jack Young voted against the rate hike. (CharmTV)

City Councilman Zeke Cohen was dissed, but it seems he’s in good company.

Public Works Director Rudy Chow never replied to Cohen’s letter asking for a rate study to justify the proposed 30%, three-year Baltimore water rate increase, the 1st District councilman said.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt says Chow ghosted her on the issue, too.

According to Pratt, she formally asked DPW in 2016 for information backing up future rate hike requests and did so again recently as part of an audit.

“But the information was never received,” she said.

The comptroller’s complaint came today as she and Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young voted “no” on the latest big bump in Baltimore residents bills for water and wastewater service.

They were outvoted by Mayor Catherine Pugh and the two others whose seats she controls on the Board of Estimates – City Solicitor Andre Davis and Chow.

Pugh said the city “can’t keep kicking the can down the road” on “unconscionable” deferred maintenance on the aging infrastructure.

“I’ve stood in neighborhoods where cars have been flooded and and apartments have been flooded and houses have been flooded,” she said. “And seniors have been begging for fixing our huge water pipe system for years.”

Pratt remained unconvinced.

“There is an open question on whether these rates are justified,” she said.

In the crowded hearing room, people held up signs that read: “Show Us The Numbers.”

Young was with the crowd on this one.

“Water rates have risen through the roof over the last decade and I have voted no on every increase,” he said.

Unaffordable, Inaccurate

The spending board meeting began with a DPW official reviewing the large and costly projects the department is undertaking: the Back River “headworks” project, the Patapsco Wastewater Plant upgrades, etc.

Also reviewed was DPW’s H2O Assist program, which the agency estimates will provide assistance to 43,000 households.

Then came advocates from the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition, making their case for postponing the rate hike.

The effects of high and sometimes inaccurate water bills – liens and tax sales – are dire, several said.

“Families have lost their homes and churches have lost their property because DPW sent an incorrect bill,” said Molly Amster, the local director of Jews United for Justice, noting that her own property was placed on the tax sale list because of a water billing mistake.

Amster said that DPW’s H2O Assist program is inadequate and the rate increase should not be approved until Young’s Water Accountability and Equity Act is approved by the City Council to ensure accurate billing and a fair process to contest billing issues.

Yesterday Cohen and four other members of the Council called for the vote to be delayed so that a comprehensive, independent rate study could be conducted.

Blow for Working People

Tracey Lingo, staff director of Unite Here! Local 7, representing 2,000 hotel, gaming and food service workers, said the latest rate increase would hit the union’s membership hard.

“The burden will fall on working people,” Lingo said.

The last speaker’s testimony echoed Councilman’s Cohen’s remarks yesterday and Pratt’s today.

Resident Mary Hughes said Chow never got back to her with information he promised on the water rate hike at a community association meeting he attended.

“You never told us how you go to that 30%,” she said.

“You never told us how other jurisdictions are handling their water rates increases. It’s as if you had these pr meetings and nothing came of it.

”So you wasted our time,” Hughes continued. “We just don’t trust DPW.”

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