After years of holding protests and getting rebuffed by public works officials, advocates for affordable water rates in Baltimore finally got a bill yesterday before a City Council committee for a vote.
So when Public Works Director Rudy Chow addressed them in Council chambers by saying “our motivation is the same. . . perhaps we can join forces,” the advocates had a stern reply.
“Too little too late,” said Rianna Eckel, senior organizer for Food & Water Watch.
“In our more than two years working on this legislation, Director Chow has refused to engage with us,” Eckel said, before recounting how in one meeting Chow “said point-blank he did not want or need any legislation.”
She further recalled how aides to Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who had introduced the affordability bill while City Council president, “tried to bring the department to the table, but without success.”
Yesterday the tables were turned, with DPW failing to water down the affordability bill (18-0307) with 14 pages worth of amendments.
Committee chair Sharon Green Middleton decried the agency’s “delay tactics,” noting that DPW was asked months ago to share any proposed amendments to the bill.
Instead, Chow handed the amendments over to the panel just minutes before yesterday’s work session began.
Committee chair Sharon Green Middleton decried the agency’s “delay tactics.”
“There’s no way for me to know if they [the amendments] are legal,” objected the law department’s Hilary Ruley.
Rather than tweaking the bill, the amendments essentially codified DPW’s own water affordability programs – dubbed “BH2O” and “BH2O Plus” – that offer low-income customers reduced rates.
Advocates have repeatedly called the programs inadequate, noting that they are based on a flat rate, rather than a percentage of income, as in their measure.
The Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee rejected the amendments and unanimously approved the bill, sending it to the full Council to consider next month.
(Voting in favor of the bill, without Chow amendments, were: Eric Costello, Danielle McCray, Middleton, Edward Reisinger and Robert Stokes.)
“A huge success”
At issue for the coalition behind the affordability bill were developments that unfolded under the Chow regime, including his five years as DPW director and, before that, three years as chief of the water bureau.
The agency has instituted annual 9% and 10% water rate hikes and has been accused of being insensitive to the hardship the charges pose in a city where 30% of households live on an income of less than $25,000 a year.
“Their disrespect and refusal to engage with us is consistent with how they have treated Baltimore citizens every day,” Eckel said.
Chow, saying he inherited the responsibility for aging, poorly maintained infrastructure, defended himself and his department.
“From Day One, my arrival, we’ve been focusing on affordability,” Chow said. “In my travel to organizations across the country, as I’m on a number of boards, every utility out there is talking about affordability.” (On Wednesday, Chow returned from Chicago, where he had attended the 92d Annual Water Environmental Federation conference.)
Citing the cost of repairing aging infrastructure, Chow defended himself and his department.
“I don’t think there is a perfect solution that will fit all scenarios,” he said, but his department is offering “programs that fit Baltimore City well.”
Saying 7,000 households have enrolled in the city’s assistance program, he called it “a huge success.” Eckel disagreed, saying that DPW’s assistance programs fail to reach or serve most renters “who comprise 53% of Baltimore households.”
The Water Affordability & Equity bill establishes a tiered billing system that caps water bills at no more than 1% of a household’s annual income.
The bill also creates an independent office of Customer Advocacy and Appeals.
Eckel said DPW’s current appeals process through the Environmental Control Board is not independent and gives the agency final say over every stage of dispute resolution.
Data Shows Surpluses
Chow in his remarks warned that the agency has “carved out” $10 million and possibly $20 million in its budget to cover the assistance program, but has limited funds available should costs rise higher.
“It will mean that we either have to receive assistance from the General Fund or we have to raise water rates to cover those extra costs,” Chow said. “That’s the reality.”
The city’s own documents, reviewed by The Brew, show a different reality.
By law, the city’s water and sewer funds are supposed to be self-sustaining and operated without profit or loss.
Financial reports to prospective bond buyers forecast that Baltimore’s utility funds will collect $215 million in surplus money – in effect, “profits” – between 2018 and 2022.
That figure comes after deducting the costs of water and sewer projects mandated by a federal consent decree and bond interest payments.
How to square the projected surplus with the latest three-year, 30% rate increase, which was proposed by Chow and approved by the Board of Estimates earlier this year?
A DPW spokesman did not address the surpluses in an earlier statement to The Brew. Instead, he asserted that “the rate increase we requested is fiscally and socially responsible, addressing our ongoing, water, sewer and stormwater needs in the next three years.”