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City panel gets earful from residents angry about rising water bills

Angry city residents shouted "Shame," "Unbelievable" and "We're fed up" at Baltimore's spending panel Wednesday for not stopping a water bill rate increase of nearly 42 percent over the next three years.

They said they were mad at city leaders for giving big businesses multimillion-dollar tax breaks while forcing individuals to pay more to live in Baltimore.

The Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, postponed until next week a vote on whether to authorize the Department of Public Works to increase water bill rates by 15 percent in the fiscal year that starts Monday, followed by 11 percent rises in each of the next two fiscal years.

Water bills for a typical customer would increase by about $8 a month in the next year, officials say, and about $21 after all three increases are factored in. A family of four would pay less.

The board delayed action to give the Department of Audits time to evaluate whether the rate increases are justified based on Department of Public Works finances and obligations. A vote is expected at the July 3 meeting.

Leo Burroughs, a community activist from Bolton Hill, called a rate increase "cowardly." He said the city should aggressively go after corporations and nonprofits that haven't paid their water bills.

The Baltimore Sun reported last summer that some businesses, groups and government offices owed more than $10 million in delinquent water bills.

"Black and poor individual homeowners are forced to pay up," Burroughs said.

The city has flagged properties for tax sale because of unpaid water bills at the same time that widespread billing errors have overcharged customers by millions.

The public works department did not immediately provide an update on the money owed by businesses and nonprofits. Officials have said they are working to collect the money, but businesses, too, have disputed certain bills as inaccurate.

Public works officials recommended the rate increases last month to meet state and federal obligations, update the city's meter and billing systems, and make repairs and investments to the aging water lines.

As part of his presentation to the board, Rudolph Chow, director of the city's Bureau of Water and Wastewater, displayed a cart of corroded and dirt-caked water pipes and charts that showed how Baltimore's water and sewer rate compared to those of other major East Coast cities.

With the proposed increase, Baltimore's rate in the first fiscal year would nearly equal that of Philadelphia, but would be less than those in the District of Columbia, Boston and Richmond, Va.

Baltimore's rate in that first is also lower than those of many areas in the region, including Carroll, Baltimore and Howard counties and the Washington suburbs, according to Chow.

Baltimore's water system serves 410,000 residential and commercial customers. About half are in Baltimore County, which announced that it would absorb the increase rather than pass it on to the users.

Chow said postponing the repairs is no longer an option.

"There is never a good time to ask our customers to pay more," Chow said.

Rawlings-Blake said raising the rates would be unpopular, but to do otherwise would be neglecting her responsibilities.

"Everyone wishes we were in a different situation, but wishing isn't going to change it," she said. "I can do the work that I know we need to do to put our city back on the right path and ruffle a few feathers and frustrate people along the way or I can placate and we will end up in the same situation as other cities."

Nearly 20 people, including City Council members Mary Pat Clarke and Carl Stokes, testified at the hour-long Board of Estimates meeting. The council members asked the board to consider the ramifications of the rate increase on residents who also are facing a new stormwater fee.

Stokes said residents should be treated more like the corporations and developers that have received tax breaks over the years to encourage them to invest within the city. He said poor people in his district wouldn't be able to cover the costs of a water bill increase.

"People are now crushed to the point of making really bad choices," he said. "People are giving up meals."

He asked that the city find a way to cover the necessary infrastructure repairs through the general fund.

Janet Blair, who lives off North Avenue in West Baltimore, said she has no confidence in the city. Over the years, she said, she's had to pay a slew of new fees and higher taxes imposed by the city.

"I am asking you today to use your common sense and stop taking our money to do whatever you want to do with it," Blair said. "You've not fixed the pipes. Y'all have been telling that story for a long time and you haven't done it and I don't believe you're going to do it this time."

One resident asked the board to "take a breath" before approving the rate increases. Another warned of an uprising by voters to throw out elected officials.

Donald Smith of Hamilton, a lifelong city resident, said he would simply be pushed to the point of leaving.

"Families like myself are moving out of Baltimore City, and we're going to pass the word: 'Do not spend your money in Baltimore City.'"

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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Proposed rate increases

•Baltimore water customers would be charged a 15 percent rate increase in the fiscal year that begins July 1 under a proposal before the Board of Estimates.

•The board must also decide whether to authorize rate increases of 11 percent in both fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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