By Dharna Noor

As temperatures in Baltimore rose to nearly 100 degrees, the city increased the price of water. Advocates rallied outside City Hall on Monday to protest the rate hike and demand income-based water billing.

“What do you do when it’s hot like this? You drink water!” said Jim Campbell, State President of AARP Maryland. “But what does the city do when it’s hot like this? Raise the price 10%.” He and the other advocates were drenched in sweat as the sun beat down through the 55% humidity.

A rally and press conference on water rates in Baltimore. The price of water just went up by 9.4%. Hosted by Food & Water Watch Food & Water Watch – Maryland

Posted by The Real News Network on Monday, 2 July 2018

The 9.4% increase on the price of water went into effect on Sunday—the same day that the Baltimore City Health Commissioner issued the 2018’s first “Code Red” extreme heat alert. According to Food and Water Watch, it will raise water and sewage rates by an average of $73.38 per household annually, but the Department of Public Works is the increasing annual credit offered to certain low-income water customers by $20 a year.

“Baltimore cannot afford to continue down this path,” said Councilperson Zeke Cohen (D-1) at the rally. “Water is a human right.” Councilperson Shannon Sneed (D-13) was also in attendance.

This hike comes as part of a plan approved in 2016 to increase water and sewage rates to help fund improvements to the city’s billing system, which is prone to errors, and repairs to the city’s hundred year old sewage system, which the city is required under a federal consent decree to rehabilitate. Over three years, the plan will result in a 33% total increase to water and sewage bill revenue by this coming July.

Advocates say that city residents cannot bear this cost, and shouldn’t have to.

“On the one hand obviously the people most negatively impacted by this are the poorest among us, particularly Black folks who are the majority of the city and the majority of the poor folks in the city,” said Molly Amster, Director of the Baltimore chapter of Jews United for Justice. “But you know, this rate hike that began yesterday will mean that by 2019, more than 50% of Baltimoreans are paying more than the U.N. says is appropriate in their human right to water policy,” she continued, referring to a 2017 report by utility expert Roger Colton.

Colton also found that the higher rates can actually negatively impact the city.

“Every time we raise water rates and people’s bills go up and they become less and less affordable, the city is actually collecting less and less money,” said Amster. “It’s fiscally irresponsible to not address the lack of affordability in as much as it is morally reprehensible to be ignoring a humanitarian crisis.”

Some also noted that higher water rates could mean more people subjected to collection methods like water shutoffs and even liens on properties that can result in foreclosures.

“Raising rates means more families will [have their properties] sent to tax sales,” said Reverend Keith Bailey, who nearly lost the Greater Bethesda Baptist Church due to an incorrect water bill. During the 2018 legislative session, Maryland passed a one year moratorium on tax sales over water bills, but it does not apply to churches. Just yesterday, Bailey was able to pay off his lien with money he raised on GoFundMe, but he noted that not every community is able to do so.

A rally and press conference on water rates in Baltimore. The price of water just went up by 9.4%. Hosted by Food & Water Watch Food & Water Watch – Maryland

Posted by The Real News Network on Monday, 2 July 2018

Instead, the advocates are demanding a more affordable billing system. “We know [water rates] should be income based,” Rev. Cortly C.D. Witherspoon, President Emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said at the rally. “It should be based upon what you bring in.”

Last year, City Council President Bernard “Jack” C. Young told the Real News that the Council would consider income-based water billing.

“The bill should be coming in January at our next council meeting,” he said in December 2017. But the bill has yet to be introduced.

Amster believes the bill has been bottlenecked by other governing bodies.

“The mayor and the Department of Public Works have the ability right now, without any legislative change, to enact administrative policy change that would address the issue,” she said. “And they are not acting and they are proving to be the impediment to moving legislation forward because the Council President and his office are not able to get cooperation from the Department of Public Works.”

The Real News contacted DPW and Mayor Pugh’s office for comment and will update this story with their responses. In a statement this week, DPW Director Rudolph Chow said, “Even as we spend billions to rebuild and improve our water and sewer infrastructure, DPW is committed to providing affordable water services for our customers. That’s why we encourage City residents to find out if they are eligible for a financial assistance program and to let us know when they need help paying their bill.”

Rally for affordable water in Baltimore

Posted by The Real News Network on Monday, 2 July 2018

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