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  October 29, 2016

Baltimore's Record High Water Rates Scrutinized in Hearing

Public interest advocates, residents and Baltimore Public Works attended a City Hall hearing to discuss how the city should cope with rising utility rates, and whether it's time to abolish a regressive system in favor of an income-based model
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THOMAS HEDGES, TRNN: On Wednesday, Baltimore Public Works joined residents and public advocates in a hearing at City Hall to address increasing utility cost and water shut-offs which have plagued the city of Baltimore over the course of the past 2 years.

MARY GRANT: The hearing was about the lack of affordability of water service in the city. It was a hearing to start the conversation about moving towards an income based water affordability program for low-income residents.

HEDGES: The proposed program, which parallels a program Philadephia recently approved would adjust water bills based on income as a way of insuring that every household can afford its bill.

JOAN JACOBSON: There are about 25,000 residential water accounts that are behind on their bills. That’s 15 percent of the total. Its more than $20 million in uncollected revenue. So there has to be a way to fix that.

HEDGES: Baltimore Public Works says that without outside support and funding, there’s little it can do to remedy the city’s unsustainable utility system.

JEFFREY RAYMOND: We have enormous bills that we have to pay. Water under our new rates is only $2.26 for 748 gallons of water. That’s just the beginning. We also have to bring it to you and that’s infrastructure. We then have to take it away from you, which is infrastructure and then process it, which is sewer. So we have a lot of costs that we have to make up and there has not been investment over the years so we have had to make that up through increased rates because there just isn’t enough outside revenue for that.

KIM TRUEHEART: The utility says that we, the rate payer, have to make this enterprise fully self sufficient and I’m not sure that that’s the right way to approach this. I don’t think that one of the poorest cities in America can really sustain building out an infrastructure that’s over 100 years old that covers 82 square miles, that cost billion of dollars to fix.

HEDGES: The larger problem many advocates point out is that federal funding for water and sewage infrastructure at cities across the country, steeply declined over the past few decades.

GRANT: We used to have federal funding for our water and sewage systems. It peaked in 1977. Since 1977, its been slowly declining with massive cuts under the Reagan administration. We reached historic lows in the George W. Bush administration for federal funding for our water and sewer systems. We had a boost with Obama’s stimulus plan but since then it has also started to decline again. So without this federal support, and with water quality standards continuing to increase, these underfunded federal mandates that we really need to have happen to make our water safe. We don’t have that federal funding in place and so rates are steadily growing in cities across the country.

HEDGES: More recently, Baltimore residents complained when the city shut water off for individuals and not for businesses. The city’s billing system has also been under fire for its numerous errors and overcharges. But at the end of the day, residents and advocates say that the city has to open up its decision making process to the public, arguing that if the people of Baltimore don’t have any real oversight it can’t truly serve as a public good.

JACOBSON: The water rates are established and set by appointees of the mayor and then they’re approved by the Board of Estimates, which is also controlled by the mayor. So there’s no independent body whatsoever looking at these water rates to say whether or not they’re fair, equitable or anything.

TRUEHEART: This is pure dictatorial BPW says when, how much and what we get to pay.

HEDGES: For The Real News this is Thomas Hedges in Baltimore.


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