Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has signed legislation that would ban the sale and lease of the city’s water and sewage system. The measure will now go before voters on the November 2018 ballot. If it passes, Baltimore will be the first major city in the United States to ban water privatization.
Pugh originally proposed this ban at the end of June as part of a package of charter amendments, but City Council rejected the proposals.
“It was locked up with a lot of other stuff that we didn’t agree with, so we just picked out the stuff that we wanted and overlooked that piece,” said Council President Jack Young, who reintroduced the measure. It passed overwhelmingly in a council hearing last week.
A coalition of environmental, faith, and labor advocates supported the bill and applaud Pugh’s move. “Keeping water public means keeping the needs of community members and the human right to water as a top priority,” said environmental advocacy group Food and Water Watch in a statement.
Several companies have pitched leasing or taking over Baltimore’s water and sewage systems. Most recently, the French company Suez pitched a 50-year concession lease. 2014 efforts by another French company, Veolia, were met with protests outside Baltimore’s City Hall.
“Proposals to privatize the water system met ardent public opposition in Baltimore for good reasons,” said Rianna Eckel, Maryland Organizer for Food and Water Watch. “Local, public control provides transparent and accountable decision making, which can ensure that water system improvements are equitable, water billing complaints are addressed in a timely and transparent manner, and water bills are affordable for each and every household.” A study by the organization found that private water utilities’ prices charge families almost 60% more for water than public utilities. Baltimore’s water prices have already increased by 33% since 2015 under public control.
Proponents of water privatization argue that it can boost efficiency, but Mary Grant, Food and Water Watch’s Public Water for All Campaign Director, told the Real News that a meta-analysis by Cornell’s Mildred Warner found this to be untrue.
Supporters expect voters to approve the amendment. “I’m confident the voters in November will overwhelmingly approve this change to the city’s charter that would prevent the destruction of Baltimore water system,” said Council President Young.
Some advocates are now calling for Baltimore to take further steps to ensure water is affordable for all city residents. Some are calling for income-based water billing. Last year, Young told the Real News that City Council would consider such measures, but they have yet to be introduced in a council hearing.
“We must fight to make sure that publicly-owned water is affordable to all Baltimoreans,” said Bennet Wilcox, Baltimore Community Organizer for Jews United for Justice, in a press release. “Every human being has an inalienable right to water, and it is about time Baltimore city started treating us that way.”