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Baltimore water bills projected to jump 80% over next six years

“As mayor I do not have the leeway to pass the buck,” Mayor Rawlings-Blake says in defense of today’s 9% increase in residential water rates.

Above: “You guys ignore us,” Joe Collins told the Board of Estimates before it passed a 9% water rate increase today. Mayor Rawlings-Blake sits to the left; at right is Bureau of Water Chief Rudolph Chow.

The city comptroller’s office today disclosed that the Rawlings-Blake administration plans to accelerate water fee increases from 9 to as much as 15% a year, leading to a near doubling of water and sewer charges over the next six years.

As a result of these increases, a typical family of four in Baltimore and surrounding counties that rely on the city system will see their yearly water and sewer bill rocket from $1,073 currently (before the 9% increase goes into effect tomorrow) to $1,934 in 2018, according to Comptroller Joan Pratt.

Pratt and her chief auditor, Robert L. McCarty, revealed the numbers at today’s Board of Estimates hearing where a 9% increase in rates was approved by the panel, effective tomorrow.

McCarty spoke after Rudolph Chow, chief of the water bureau, said Baltimore’s sewer system was “in a state of degradation” and is “crumbling under our feet.”

Chow said the city administration has made many efforts to keep water-rate increases to a minimum while rebuilding the system, which is “why we have kept our [rate] increases to the single digits.”

However, auditor McCarty said the administration plans on a 12% water-rate hike in 2014 and 2015, followed by a 15% hike in 2016 and 2017, returning to a 9% hike in 2018. Chow did not dispute the figures.

Mayor and her Appointees Ratify Rate Hike

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her two appointees, Public Works Director Alfred
Foxx and City Solicitor George Nilson, voted for the increase, while Pratt voted against it, saying it would place an unfair burden on low-income and elderly residents.

The board’s fifth member, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, abstained from voting because of an ethics board ruling. (His brother works for the water bureau, presenting a potential conflict of interest.) Young said he would have voted against the increase if he were able to.

Rawlings-Blake defended the rate hike, saying it was essential so that the city could pay for costs associated with state and federal environmental mandates as well as avoid a “catastrophic” failure in the system.

“As mayor I do not have the leeway to pass the buck,” she said, noting that she was not swayed by “politics or popularity.”

“A Rush Job”

The vote came after a half dozen residents spoke against the water increase.

Joe Collins, who lives in Canton, accused the board of brushing off how rising water “taxes” burden regular citizens and discourage families from moving into Baltimore.

“You guys ignore us,” he said, as his 1½-year-old son, Tucker Cash Collins, wiggled in his arms. “You can kiss the 10,000 people coming into this city goodbye,” he added, referring to the mayor’s pledge to institute policies that will attract 10,000 new families to Baltimore by 2020.

Dennis Betzel called for a full audit of the water bureau before the board passed the increase today. Saying the public was not given enough time to respond to the proposed increase, he termed today’s action “a rush job.”

“Lack of Management Acumen”

Citizen activist Kim Trueheart lashed out at the costly delays of many of the water bureau’s projects and “excessive extra work orders” that have doubled some recent water contracts.

“I’m burdened with paying for lack of management acumen,” she said, because of a 1978 city law that allows the water bureau to pass its “cost overruns directly onto me and the rest of the public.”

Trueheart asked the board for an explanation of why the city had failed to collect over $5 million owed by RG Steel Sparrows Point for its use of industrial waste water and other city services.

“If my bill was outstanding like that, you’d take my house.” she said.

Rawlings-Blake and other board members did not address the unpaid water bill, which is now before a U.S. bankruptcy judge in Delaware because the steel company is in receivership.

It appears unlikely that the city will receive anything from the steel company, which The Brew reported stopped paying some of its water bills as long as 30 months ago.

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