Unusually high water bills, missing bills and the process to contest bills are the subjects of a city council hearing on Monday (March 27) at City Hall.
The hearing, before the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, begins at 5 pm, according to an email to constituents sent out by Councilman Robert Stokes Sr.
“The hearing can be as short as one hour or as long as five hours – we really can’t tell at this point,” said Stokes, who called for the hearing along with City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
But if past hearings are precedent, participants would do well to drop a lot of coins in those downtown parking meters.
Water affordability, as well as erroneous bills and other city bureaucracy problems, are all on the table – issues that have made getting basic water and sewer service in Baltimore not just a headache but a public health threat, water customer advocates say.
They call it a justice issue as well.
“Water service is increasingly un-affordable for Baltimore residents. It’s unsustainable,” said Renee Hatcher, Clinical Teaching Faculty Fellow at the University of Baltimore School of Law, at a hearing in October. “The city’s approach to water billing has disproportionately targeted low-income black residents of the city of Baltimore.”
• The city’s Department of Public Works has made changes aimed at making the billing system more transparent, streamlined and efficient, but billing and affordability issues have continued.
• The customer complaints come in the wake of the city’s roll-out last fall of a new monthly water billing system and a three-year, nearly 30% rate increase. (This was on the heels of rate increases that roughly tripled water bills in Baltimore over the previous 15 years.)
• Typically, the city shuts off about 3,000 households a year, but in March 2015 about 8,000 were shut off, Hatcher said. Roughly 4,000 of those accounts were not turned back on for a full year.
• Water rates in Baltimore have been rising seven times faster than inflation, an Abell Foundation report disclosed in November.
• City officials confirm that last year over 300 owner-occupied properties went to tax sale last year because of unpaid water bills.
Del. Washington Seeks Moratorium
Lawmakers in Annapolis are considering imposing a moratorium on the practice of selling people’s homes if they fail to pay their water bills.
A bill to that effect, sponsored by Del. Mary Washington, was approved last week by the House of Delegates over the objection of city officials.
Two city agencies, the Department of Public Works and the Department of Finance will be testifying at Monday’s City Council hearing.
According to Stokes’ email, they will be submitting reports in advance that will cover:
• Water affordability for customers of Baltimore’s Bureau of Water and Wastewater
• The new water billing system started in October 2016
• Concerns raised by customers of the Bureau of Water and Wastewater regarding unusually high bills, missing bills, and the process to contest bills.