About 50 protesters rallied Wednesday outside Baltimore City Hall to object to a proposed study of the water system, a step they fear could eventually put the system in private hands.
The group, led by labor organizers and the nonprofit Corporate Accountability International, is worried that a $500,000 consultant's study could lead to the private management of the water system.
But the Department of Public Works request for proposals did not involve privatization, city officials said. The request seeks to find a company to study ways to improve "operating and maintenance performance" while "reducing costs and enhancing operational efficiencies."
City officials denied that the request is tied to efforts to privatize the water system, which employs 1,500 and provides drinking water to 1.8 million people in the Baltimore region.
Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, called the protesters' position "wild and irresponsible speculation that is not rooted in any fact."
"There has been no discussion or no proposal put forward to the mayor for privatizing the water system," Harris said. Putting the system under private management also has not been the subject of discussion internally at the public works department, he said.
The request comes amid a series of water rate increases, as city officials face pressure from the federal government to overhaul the aging, leaky water system.
In response to the request, the city received two proposals. Public works officials have no firm timetable for when it will proceed.
Glenard S. Middleton, who leads the local unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the protesters are especially concerned about one company that has submitted a proposal.
Middleton alleged that if given control of the city's water system, Veolia, a global company that specializes in "optimized resource management," would outsource the process and lay off city workers. He said his comments were based on Veolia's "track record" in other cities.
"What they do is, they come in and do an efficiency study, and then two years from now what they will do is say that we want to downsize the workers, contract them out of their jobs," Middleton said.
Middleton said he's concerned about protecting city jobs and not risking the quality of Baltimore's water.
In St. Louis, a contract proposal between the city's water division and Veolia Water North America was dropped in October after protests over the company's environmental and business practices, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. St. Louis officials said the contract was intended to find a way to cut costs and avoid rate increases for customers.
Asked for comment about the Baltimore proposal, a representative from Veolia referred questions to the city.
Outside City Hall, the protesters chanted, "Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, don't sell out Baltimore." The group also sat in on Wednesday's meeting of the Board of Estimates, which would have to vote on any contract for a study.
Lauren DeRusha, an organizer with the Boston-based Corporate Accountability International, said Baltimore officials denied a public information request this week seeking to obtain the proposal submitted by Veolia. A similar request by The Baltimore Sun was also denied. City officials said the information is considered confidential and used to determine eligibility and negotiate contracts.
DeRusha challenged that rationale. "We believe water is an issue that the public has a right to know about," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.