At City Hall, Debates Over Water Affordability Measures Rage On

By Dharna Noor

Baltimoreans are still waiting to receive water bills for May, June, and July. The city’s billing system was suspended due to a May 6 ransomware attack on the city. This week, the Department of Public Works (DPW) said they’d sent out postcards to remind customers to expect higher bills.

Water affordability advocates applauded DPW’s transparency about the upcoming bills, but they say they’re still waiting for the department to engage with them on their proposal for income-based water billing, which they have been working on for years.

City Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee held their first work session on the Water Accountability and Equity Act (Council Bill 180307) on Thursday morning. The bill would tie the price of water to residents’ income and create an independent Office of the Water-Customer Advocacy and Appeals for customers to dispute bills. Importantly, it would also change the definition of a water customer, making assistance available for renters.

The bill was introduced in December 2018 by now-Mayor Jack Young when he was City Council President, and had its first hearing in May 2019.

At the work session, Committee Chair Sharon Middleton (D-6) held up her water carafe. “We are required to consume a certain amount of water every day,” she said. “There are many people suffering in paying their water bills, generally people who are on fixed incomes, that are struggling day to day…Baltimore is in a crisis all the way around.”

DPW did not submit written amendments to the bill—the deadline to do so was July 17. Instead, they focused on their new assistance program.

“As you know, DPW is firmly committed to providing safe, clean, affordable drinking water to all of our residents,” said DPW Director Rudy Chow. “We are already in the process of launching our new Baltimore H2O Assists and our H20 Plus Assistance programs.”

This pivot frustrated Councilmember Mary Pat Clarke (D-14), who is not a member of the Council’s Taxation Committee but chose to attend the work session. “We seem to be talking about two different tracks,” she said. “Is there some feeling that both go forward on parallel tracks?”

“Not yet,” said Sheryl Goldstein, the Mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff. Goldstein said they’d prefer to have time to track the new program before implementing the new legislation.

Mary Grant, Public Water for All Campaign Director for Food and Water Watch, says an important difference between the proposed income-based legislation and DPW’s new assistance program is that DPW’s program is not written into law. “We need to really codify these proposals because we’ve seen how DPW can take programs away at the Director’s discretion,” she said.

She cited the informal hearing process that DPW offered water customers until October 2017. “We saw that with the informal conferences, at Rudy Chow’s discretion, they just took them away,” she said.

Both councilmembers and bill supporters expressed disappointment that DPW did not submit amendments.

“I don’t think there’s any excuse for not being prepared today,” said Grant at the meeting. “The bill was released in December and we met with Rudy Chow first in October 2016, so there have been years of knowing this was coming.”

“And the council has been very patient as well,” added Committee Chair Middleton.

The city’s Law Department did propose amendments to the legislation, for which Grant thanked them.

Bill supporters found many of the Law Department’s proposed amendments agreeable, but raised issues with others. One amendment they found questionable would make the new Office of the Customer Advocate a part of the Department of Public Works (DPW) instead of a separate entity.

Law Department Attorney Hillary Ruley said they had no issue with the office being effectively independent. “You can put language in to say DPW can’t touch them,” she said. “But it’s a crime under Maryland law to look at other people’s information.”

“We’re concerned that if the advocate’s office is placed within DPW, the progress that needs to be made won’t be made,” said Jamie Lee, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and advocate for the bill. Instead, she proposed that customers be required to give their consent to release their records. “That is perfectly legal and the law supports that.”

The price of water in Baltimore has rapidly increased. On July 1, even though billing was suspended, the city enacted a 10% rate hike.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Mayor Jack Young said residents should expect to receive three months of bills “by early August.” He said that the city won’t provide additional assistance, but will not charge late fees for the three-month bills.

Even before the latest increase, Baltimore’s water prices had doubled since 2012. Officials say the increases are necessary to repair Baltimore’s crumbling water and sewer infrastructure. They have planned two more 10% rate hikes for summer 2020 and 2021.

“With outrageous rate hikes still coming, water infrastructure chaos, and a ransomware attack stalling the water billing process, the water crisis in Baltimore is at an all-time high.” said Rianna Eckel, Senior Maryland Organizer with Food and Water Watch, said in a statement. “It comes down to one question: does Baltimore want to truly solve this growing water crisis and provide full protections to all residents, including the most vulnerable, or not?”

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.