City Council advanced a bill on Monday that will drastically reform Baltimore’s water billing system, and advocates are elated.

“To deny citizens the ability to have affordable water is to deny them access to a basic human right,” said Councilmember Sharon Green Middleton (D-6). “People in our communities have been suffering and worrying about their water bills for way too long.”

At a hearing on Monday evening, City Council approved the Water Accountability and Equity Act (Council Bill 180307) which would discount customers’ water rates based on their income. Residents who make 50 percent of the poverty limit would be required to spend no more than 1 percent of their income on water. Residents who make 100 to 200 percent of the poverty level would have their bills capped at 3 percent of their income. 

It would also create an office to hear disputes about erroneous bills, and expand the city’s definition of a water customer to allow renters to manage their own water accounts. Currently, renters are only eligible for water bill assistance if their landlords agree to add their names to a property’s account.

Mayor Jack Young—who announced this weekend that he is running for re-election—introduced the bill in December 2018 when he was City Council president.

The legislation will move to a final vote on Nov. 4. If it passes there, it will go to Young’s desk for final approval, where it is expected to pass.

Previously, the Department of Public Works (DPW) attempted to gut the bill, but a spokesperson from the department told the Baltimore Sun that they no longer oppose its passage. 

Middleton said the coalition’s and council’s tenacity made it difficult for DPW to keep opposing the bill. “I think they saw that the advocacy groups, the [Taxation and Finance] Committee, the council president’s office, none of us would back down,” said Middleton. “And they saw that we had lots of data. So having all that together and being organized helped them to understand we weren’t gonna let them keep procrastinating on the bill.”

Water affordability advocates said that since they began working with Young on the bill in summer 2017, getting the DPW on board was their biggest challenge. “We delayed the introduction over a year just trying to get their input on the bill,” Rianna Eckel, an organizer with Food and Water Action and convener of the Right to Water Coalition, said in an email.

In July, DPW attended a meeting in the City Council’s Taxation and Finance Committee on the bill without written amendments to show. Then last month, DPW proposed a suite of amendments which would have gutted the bill. They said the legislation would be incompatible with the current billing system because it would require up-front discounts instead of reimbursements, and require the department to change the definition of a water customer to include renters. 

Essentially, they took away the entire bill and substituted their business as usual policies, which we know are not working for the people of Baltimore,” said Eckel.

Chow said that the department was committed to making bills more affordable for low-income residents, as evidenced by their progress implementing their new Baltimore H2O Assists and H2O Assists Plus programs. 

“I’m not saying the system we have in place is the best, and it should never got modified or changed,” Chow said at a September hearing on the bill. “As I’ve said before, we’ll continue to adjust that program.” Last week, Chow announced that he plans to retire in February.

Eckel said DPW’s new programs are insufficient because they offer a flat percentage discount on bills, rather than tying bills to customers’ incomes. “With this flat discount, some families may still be unable to afford their bills, especially as rates are set to rise,” she said.

She said income-based billing is the only method that responds to low-income Baltimoreans’ needs.

This legislation is long overdue for the people of Baltimore, and it’s been a long journey to pass it,” said Eckel.

Advocates say the bill is especially necessary because city water bills are rising. This year, the city increased the price of water by 10 percent, and they plan to increase it by another 20 percent over the next two years.

Even before the latest increase, rates had doubled since 2012. Officials say the increases are necessary to repair Baltimore’s aging water and sewer infrastructure.

Baltimore also has a problem of incorrect bills. In 2016, hundreds of residents received bills of over $50,000 each, according to the Baltimore Sun. And last week, Mayor Young’s office announced they will conduct a sweeping audit of the city’s water billing system after WBAL found that the city did not collect any water bills from the waterfront Ritz Carlton Residences for over a decade. The condominium complex owes some 2.3 million dollars.

Councilmembers did approve some amendments to the bill.

One, proposed by the Law Department, would make the new customer advocate office a part of DPW instead of a separate entity. 

“You can put language in to say DPW can’t touch them,” said Law Department Attorney Hillary Ruley at a July hearing on the bill. “But it’s a crime under Maryland law to look at other people’s information.”

Bill advocates would have preferred the office to be completely independent from DPW, but realized that would have required amending the city’s charter.

The Council also approved an amendment from the Department of Finance, which would remove a provision that would have lowered the interest rate on tax sales for owner-occupied properties to 5 percent.

“Of course, we’re sad to see it removed, but because water bills are now removed from tax sale, it will no longer determine a family’s access to water,” said Eckel, referring to a bill that Maryland’s General Assembly passed last year which disables the city from seizing residents’ homes and putting them up for tax sale due to unpaid water bills.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey also proposed an amendment that would require the city to begin researching another reform, which would require residents with larger properties to pay higher infrastructure bills.

“This legislation is about structural change,” said Council President Brandon Scott. “I’m proud that the Water Affordability and Equity Act is back before the full council. We know it was a tough process.”

At Monday’s hearing, City Council also passed a resolution to reopen and renegotiate the Baltimore’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement,  which allows large nonprofit institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and Hospital to make yearly payments to the city instead of being taxed a percentage.

“The big relationship between the Water Accountability and Equity Act and the PILOT program is that by [major nonprofit institutions] paying so low in their tax rate, it causes the cost of public services to be raised,” said Morgan State University professor of public health and activist Dr. Lawrence Brown.

He says if all institutions were required to pay more, city residents could see untold benefits. “We could have affordable housing that’s produced in this city. We could have a universal basic income that supports that the folks that are on the corners cleaning windshields. We could have universal healthcare in this city,” he said at a press conference. “We could have affordable water, too,” he added in an interview with the Real News.

Brown says the water affordability legislation could have been stronger. “The Water for All program should be automatically applied for entire [low-income] neighborhoods. People shouldn’t have to sign up,” he said. “But we definitely should be looking for ways to make taxes and the general fund and the spending we do in this city more equitable.

Though advocates were delighted that the bill advanced, recent news cast a long shadow over the hearing: Longtime DPW spokesman Jeffery Raymond passed away on Sunday. “The entire Department of Public Works extends our sincere and heartfelt condolences to Mr. Raymond’s family,” Director Chow said in a statement. 

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14) read DPW’s statement at the hearing. “The department is mourning, as is the entire city,” she said.

But despite the sad news of Raymond’s passing, as well as the recent losses of Michigan representative John Conyers, Maryland representative Elijah Cummings, and Former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Middleton said supporters should remember to celebrate the bill advancing.

“It’s going to be a bright day in Baltimore,” said Councilwoman Middleton.

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