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Politicsby Fern Shen10:06 amOct 29, 20190

Water affordability bill, popular with mayoral candidates, advances

Young and Scott joust over who gets credit for a measure to address a hot-button issue in Baltimore: sky-high water bills

Above: Brandon Scott and Jack Young, at Young’s mayoral swearing-in ceremony, a week after his predecessor, Catherine Pugh resigned in the wake of a corruption scandal. (Fern Shen)

For years, advocates for Baltimore’s elderly and low-income water customers fought a lonely battle to get city leaders to back their efforts.

Lately, though, their cause has been all the rage as both City Council President Brandon Scott and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young compete for votes to become Baltimore’s next mayor.

Scott was set to stand yesterday with ministers, labor leaders and the NAACP to tout his support for a water bill relief measure that the Council wound up passing unanimously, 15-0.

He got a few moments to shine at the Council meeting, proclaiming his support for the effort (“DPW must be accountable to its customers – Baltimore city residents!” he declared), but the presser he’d been counting on never came to pass.

It was abruptly canceled after Young, who introduced Bill-0307 when he was City Council president, blew up over not being invited to attend, sources tell The Brew.

A Young staffer reportedly berated organizers when he found out about the presser, exclaiming, “He did introduce the bill!”

On the other hand, while the advocates may have made a strategic gaffe, it stemmed from their feeling that “Jack didn’t really support the bill after he became mayor,” said a person knowledgeable about the issue. The source noted that Young allowed Public Works Director Rudy Chow to stand in the bill’s way right up until the committee vote.

“This is not about the affordability bill itself at this point,” another source close to the matter told The Brew. “It’s about who is going to take most of the credit for it.”

A spokesman for Young said the mayor “was not involved” in the cancellation, and a spokeswoman for Food & Water Watch, a member of the coalition behind the bill, said yesterday’s news conference was axed because of “scheduling issues.”

Timing is Everything

Such elbow-prodding tension seems inevitable as Young and Scott conduct government business during the day, while going head-to-head in combat in anticipation of the April 28, 2020 Democratic Party primary.

Currently caught in the middle of the jousting was the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition and its allies, who are seeking relief for low-income residents amid steadily rising water rates.

The Water Accountability and Equity Act will discount billing rates based on income and give customers a greater opportunity to challenge erroneous bills.

Advocates logged long hours over many months to get the bill to committee, holding demonstrations to rally public support and negotiating behind the scenes to ensure that water users who are renters are covered by the bill.

If they proved beneficiaries of the right alignment of political forces last night, the clear loser has been Chow, who could do no wrong under the two previous mayors.

Now a Political Liability

Along with the rate hikes, critical stories involving DPW had been piling up for more than a year, including the felling of hundreds of trees for controversial water storage tanks at two city parks.

But apparently the last straw for Chow came last month during the committee vote on the affordability bill.

After he introduced last-minute amendments that would have gutted the measure, Chow was blasted not just by advocates, but by Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, a close ally of Young.

Two weeks later, Young himself tersely announced Chow’s retirement. This was soon followed by Young’s announcement of his mayoral bid with his campaign touting, among his accomplishments, the water affordability bill.

Young “didn’t want any more bad DPW headlines,” a source told The Brew about Chow’s ouster, especially after  Scott, who had already announced his mayoral bid, began championing the bill.

The escalating cost of water has met with repeated protests by city residents. None of turned the tide as water rates are set to increase yearly for many more years. (Fern Shen)

One of numerous rallies held outside City Hall to protest Baltimore city water rate hikes, billing errors, service turn-offs and tax sale foreclosures. (Fern Shen)

Long Time Coming

With Bill-0307, the coalition didn’t get everything it wanted. The final version does not include, for instance, an office of “water customer advocacy and appeal” independent of the public works department.

Still, they’ve come a long way from the days when they held rallies outside of City Hall and looked sadly at its stone edifice, wondering if any invited officials would come out to support them.

Councilman Bill Henry (now a 2020 candidate for comptroller, who wore a “Water is a Human Right” lapel sticker last night) was holding hearings and pushing for water bill rate relief some four years ago.

Baltimore’s high water rates violate U.N. standards, advocates say (10/27/2016)

But supporters said last night that the approved measure goes a long way to provide relief to struggling residents and that they were pleased to have backing, for whatever reasons, from Young, Scott, and the rest of the Council.

“This bill helps tens of thousands of Baltimoreans receive due process in water billing and assistance in paying for this life-giving resource, when needed,” they said in a release after the vote.

A final vote is expected at the Council’s next meeting. If approved, the bill will go before Young for his signature.

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