In a panel discussion, activists pushed back against onerous collections methods like tax sales and water shut-offs, and suggested an income-based water billing system to help pay for Baltimore’s necessary infrastructure investments
MARK JAMES: I love the city, I brag about this city but this city has let me down epically because now I am facing, any day, having to box up and bag up my entire church.
DHARNA NOOR: Pastor Mark James’ Baltimore church is one of the thousands of Baltimore properties that have been put up for auction due to unpaid water bills. Last week, he told his story on a panel put on by Food and Water Watch and Jews United for Justice.
MARK JAMES: And so, we were sold into tax sale and we are yet fighting, and any day, facing dispossession and displacement after so many years of community service.
DHARNA NOOR: At the panel, advocates said the problems posed by water bills are systemic.
SPEAKER: Water rates in Baltimore city are skyrocketing. They’ve actually quadrupled since the year 2000 and they’re becoming quite an unmanageable burden for many residents in the city, especially with the full collection service which is tax sale and water shutoff.
DHARNA NOOR: Last month, Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered a halt to tax sales of city homes over unpaid water bills, a move the panelists celebrated.
CATHERINE PUGH: We don’t take anybody’s house for a water bill. A water bill won’t, your house cannot be taken.
SPEAKER: I want to acknowledge and congratulate the advocates who’ve been working on this issue that the mayor has agreed or has ordered that there be a moratorium on the sale of water only tax sale bills.
DHARNA NOOR: And activists are pushing for legislation to make water more affordable. Here in Baltimore, we recently reported that the City Council said they’ll be considering a bill for income based water billing.
And in Philadelphia, the legislation that passed specifically called for income based water billing. They’re looking at something similar now in Chicago, is that on the table for Baltimore?
SPEAKER: That’s what we’re looking at.
DHARNA NOOR: We reached out to City Council for more information about when they’ll be considering this bill and are awaiting comment. On the panel, delegate Mary Washington spoke about the need for Maryland to take statewide action. Last session, she was the lead sponsor on a bill to require jurisdictions across the state to implement water affordability programs.
MARY WASHINGTON: And then it set minimum standards. It had to be income based, that it had to have special programs for seniors and for people who are disabled and then also would have an implementation process over a couple of years.
DHARNA NOOR: The bill didn’t pass last year’s session. But Delegate Washington says she’ll continue to fight to improve Maryland’s water billing system.
MARY WASHINGTON: We should only charge people what they can afford. And then we could actually make sense to rather than continually charge somebody $100, if they can afford $70 they’re more likely to do that. So, I put in legislation to also establish a statewide water affordability program. And that legislation did not pass. But again, we will continue that work.
DHARNA NOOR: The panel’s featured speaker was Roger Colton, a utility affordability expert. Colton’s latest report for Food and Water Watch shows that by 2019, half of all Baltimorians won’t be able to afford their water bills.
ROGER COLTON: One of the problems facing Baltimore is that Baltimore is under a federal mandate to clean up its water and sewer service. And bills have tripled in the last few years. However, the uncollectible bills that or the uncollectible accounts that Baltimore water is facing has gone up by 1400%. You can bill more and more revenue and collect less and less of that.
DHARNA NOOR: Colton worked on the historic income based water billing legislation that was passed in Philadelphia in 2016.
ROGER COLTON: On July 1, 2017, the city of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Water Department began to charge low income customers affordable rates based on an affordable percentage of income.
DHARNA NOOR: Baltimore’s Department of Public Works have said they would not want to endorse such a bill in Baltimore until the results of the Philadelphia program can be assessed. But to this, Colton said-
ROGER COLTON: Income based affordability programs, percentage of income affordability programs have been in existence in the United States since the mid-1980s. So, they have been in existence for over 30 years. They have been approved and operated for not years, but decades, in some of Maryland’s neighbors. In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the state of Illinois, a huge metropolitan area obviously with Chicago. Denver in Colorado has a percentage of income program. These programs are not new. They’re not revolutionary. They have been around for 30 plus years. They’ve been shown to work.
DHARNA NOOR: Colton says he’s found that water affordability legislation would be good for business in the city.
ROGER COLTON: When you’re making investments that result in bills that people can’t and won’t pay, then you’re borrowing money with no capacity to repay that money. And that’s not a good thing.
DHARNA NOOR: And to communities across Baltimore, James said the value of affordable water and fewer lost properties would be immeasurable.
MARK JAMES: We would like think the ministry that we uphold there and that we administrate there gives some salient value to the community in terms of goodwill, and in terms of reduced crime rate, and in terms of solace for hurting individuals and you can’t place a dollar amount on that. You really can’t place a dollar amount on that.
DHARNA NOOR: For The Real News, Dharna Noor, Baltimore.