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Accountabilityby Fern Shen10:00 amNov 22, 20170

Water affordability legislation delayed in City Council until next year

Advocates have pushed the city for years to provide relief to low-income customers

Above: Soaring water rates in Baltimore have increasingly drawn protests. (Fern Shen)

Invoking tomorrow’s holiday spirit, advocates for residents struggling to pay Baltimore’s fast-rising water rates have been on social media and on the phone urging the City Council to take action.

“This Thanksgiving as many as 4,900 Baltimore families won’t have running water to cook dinner,” their online ad says, providing a phone number for people to call Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and ask him to take action on water affordability.

But it won’t be until after the next set of holidays passes and the Council convenes in early 2018 that a water affordability ordinance is expected to be introduced, The Brew has learned.

The city law department and the Department of Public Works (DPW) are still thrashing out the details of the proposed legislation.

“The Council president will be the lead sponsor on the bill, and it is his preference to make sure everything is perfect before we put it in,” said 4th District Councilman Bill Henry, who held hearings a year ago on the city’s high, and sometimes erroneous, water and sewer bills.

A bill draft is under discussion now, but Henry said it won’t likely be introduced until January. A call to Young’s legislative staff about the status of the proposed ordinance was referred to his spokesman, Lester Davis, who has not returned the call.

Told that the bill is unlikely to be introduced this year, Mary Grant, of the Food & Water Watch, said, “That’s disappointing.”

Her group is part of a coalition of community, faith, legal aid and other advocacy organizations that have been pushing the city to enact an ordinance that provides financial relief for low-income households that can’t pay water bills.

“Without action, more households every year will lose water service or their homes in tax sales because they are unable to pay their water bills,” said Grant, director of group’s national “Water-For-All” campaign.

Struggling Customers

Little that city officials have done in response has stemmed the outcry of ratepayers over the steady increase in water and sewer rates since the early 2000s.

Baltimore earlier this year hiked rates by an average of 9.5%, with the same percentage increase coming in July 2019.

In 2015, about 8,000 households had their water shut off – and roughly half were not turned back on for a full year.

At that point, Baltimore will have roughly doubled water and sewer rates over the past eight years – hikes DPW says are necessary to cover the costs of fixing aging infrastructure and meeting a federal consent decree.

Over this period, the number of people losing water service due to unpaid bills – and losing their homes at tax sales – has increased as well.

About 1,000 homeowners face tax sales because of unpaid water bills, officials said earlier this year. In March 2015, about 8,000 households had their water shut off – and roughly half were not turned back on for a full year.

Existing city programs to provide financial assistance to seniors and other water customers in need are no longer adequate, advocates say.

An Abell Foundation study, released last November, came to the same conclusion.

Vow to Introduce Legislation

The advocates want the city to create a program that gives a water and sewer credit to customers whose household income is less than 200% of the federal poverty line.

Following a series of hearings where advocates testified to the disparate impact of the rates on poor, primarily African-American customers, President Young and Councilman Henry vowed to introduce legislation.

The groups are asking for other changes in addition to credits for extremely poor households.

They want the city to create an “Office of the Water Ombudsman,” to serve as an independent problem-solving office to investigate water billing complaints.

Erroneous bills and the elimination of a grievance system for contesting bills have left some customers feeling they have no recourse to resolve disputes.

The advocates are also seeking protections against the tax sale of properties due to unpaid water bills.

FOR MORE:

Baltimore water, sewer rates set to jump 9% in fifth yearly increase (6/27/12)

Amid residential cut-offs, a $17,000 city water bill that no agency will claim (4/20/15)

Some still struggle with wildly inaccurate waster bills (7/13/15)

Baltimore’s high water rates violate U.N. standards, advocates says (10/27/16)

In Baltimore, water rates rose but relief measures lagged, study finds (11/16/16)

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