Baltimore City Council to Propose Income-Based Water Billing

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A new report shows that half of Baltimore households will be unable to afford water by 2019, but new legislation could change that

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s a basic need but in Baltimore it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable. A new study from Food and Water Watch shows that half of all Baltimore households will not be able to afford water by 2019. The organization has urged Baltimore City Council to take action.

MARY GRANT: Well, we hope to see percentage of income billing capping water bills at a level that households can afford to pay. We hope to see a robust piece of legislation from the council.

DHARNA NOOR: The City Council says their heeding Food and Water Watch’s call for reform. In 2018, City Council will propose a bill to limit the price of water to make it affordable for low income families.

SPEAKER: The bill should be coming in January at our next council meeting.

DHARNA NOOR: The efforts have led by council member, Bill Henry and council president, Jack Young.

SPEAKER: We are working along with the administration and the advocates to come up with a bill that can pass legal muster because we recognize that some of these bills are just too high for our citizens to pay. We’re going to look at the affordability in terms of what they pay.

DHARNA NOOR: Henry told The Real News that the bill would include income based water billing. In Philadelphia the legislation that would pass, 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?

BILL HENRY: That’s what we’re looking at.

DHARNA NOOR: A similar proposal was recently introduced in Chicago by Alderman Carlos Rosa. A proposal that Grant said was very ambitious.

MARY GRANT: Well, this bill is actually really groundbreaking. It’s based on a bill that was done in Philadelphia but it goes even further than that. It actually caps water bills at a level that each and every household can afford to pay. This is a percentage of income water affordability program. It’s commonly done in the gas and electricity sectors but Philadelphia was the first city in the country to do it for water.

DHARNA NOOR: Here in Baltimore earlier this year, the city hiked the price of water by an average of 9.5%. Prices are set to go up again at the same rate in 2019. Baltimore’s Department of Public Works or DPW said that they need the additional funding in order to fund better infrastructure and a more efficient billing system. They say they’ve spent 900 million dollars in the last 15 years on sewer repairs.

BILL HENRY: DPW is pushing back both on the idea that they can afford to reduce what they charge to people at the lower end of the spectrum without impacting their total revenue in order to do as much debt service as possible to float as many bonds as possible, to do as much work as possible-

DHARNA NOOR: But Mary Grant says that this kind of legislation can actually help the city draw in more revenue for things like infrastructure repairs, because if more people can afford to pay their bills, more people will pay them.

MARY GRANT: Program is actually fiscally irresponsible of the city not to address the affordability problem because they’re going to keep having to use these really expensive collection methods, these punitive collection methods to shutting off water services, sending homes to tax sale. These really, these methods of collecting on households, that are just punishing them for being poor-

DHARNA NOOR: We reached out to the Department of Public Works for comment and they said, “The coming water affordability legislation is just that, coming next year. Naturally, we will be happy to work with the council but right now there really isn’t anything to comment about. Meanwhile, we are continuing our outreach efforts to make people aware of the assistance programs available.” Grant says there are many benefits to making water affordable.

MARY GRANT: Making an affordability program, implementing an affordability program will have widespread benefits for the city not in terms of just equity, injustice, public health but also in terms of fiscal responsibility. It’s the fiscally responsible thing to do as well.

DHARNA NOOR: And Henry agreed.

BILL HENRY: But at the end of the day, people need to have water to live. It’s a good thing for Baltimore City as a whole to not have tens of thousands of people trying to live here without having access to fresh water and working sewer capability because historically, that tends to be a bad thing for the city, and for public health in general.

DHARNA NOOR: Young says that council’s bill will not only deal with the cost of water, but also tackle the cost of sewage and distribution and also of maintenance.

JACK YOUNG: I don’t think the price of the water is the real issue. It’s the sewage charge and that distribution charge that is greater than the water itself because if you have a leaky faucet, you got to make sure that’s fixed, all those things. Once we get all those things done and the person’s home is leak-proof, we want to make sure that they can afford the water that they are actually using.

DHARNA NOOR: The Real News will continue to report on this coming legislation. For The Real News, Dharna Noor, Baltimore.