Changing the way Baltimore bills for water is not an option

Just as you can’t squeeze water from a stone, at a certain point, Baltimore won’t be able to squeeze more cash out of its water customers. That’s the conclusion of a sobering new report commissioned by Food and Water Watch, an organization that has been advocating on behalf of city residents who are not only pressed financially but at risk of losing their homes because of unaffordable water bills. What’s most striking about the study is that it isn’t couched in terms of social justice or fairness but simple logic. As bills have become unaffordable for more and more people, unpaid debts have grown and efforts to collect them have grown both more expensive and less successful. Continuing to raise bills even higher will only make the problem worse. We need a better way.

The pace of increases in Baltimore’s water bills has been staggering. Average charges have more than doubled since 2010, the report by Boston-based economist Roger Colton found, and they are projected to rise by double-digit rates annually for the near future. Consequently, the value of bad debts the system generates is skyrocketing. Using the limited records available from the city, Mr. Colton found that the value of debt from water bills the city does not expect to be able to collect within a year increased by 154 percent between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2016, and the value of similar wastewater debts increased by a mind-boggling 1,400 percent during that time.

Baltimore doesn’t have a choice legally or morally about bringing in more money for its water and wastewater system. It is already far behind schedule in its EPA-mandated upgrades to a system that routinely spills raw sewage into the area’s waterways, not to mention homeowners’ basements. The system’s supply lines leak, and old pipes burst with alarming regularity. The city has already spent $800 million on designing and implementing upgrades, and it is expected to cost nearly another $1.2 billion between now and 2030 to finish the job. Consequently, the cost of paying back the system’s revenue bond debt increased at more than twice the rate of its operating expenses from 2010 to 2016.

Baltimore does maintain assistance programs for low-income and elderly water consumers, and Public Works officials have made efforts in recent years to increase outreach to those who might be eligible. But a Sun analysis this summer found that fewer than half as many city residents are enrolled in water assistance programs than participate in similar ones for utilities, despite similar criteria. And even if the city were able to enroll all those people, it would still fail to reach tens of thousands who qualify for and need the help.

Food and Water Watch and other advocates are pushing for Baltimore to follow Philadelphia’s lead in setting water rates based on the customer’s income. There is merit to that idea, and Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young has been working to hammer out the details of a proposal to enact a version of it in Baltimore. Public Works Director Rudy Chow told The Sun’s Ian Duncan that he’s not opposed to reforming the way the city charges for water and wastewater service — so long as the new method continues to produce the revenue necessary to sustain the system. But a future in which increased rates push more people into non-payment, which forces higher rates and more bad debts, ad infinitum, is no answer either. Even those who can pay Baltimore’s ever-increasing water bills at some point will vote with their feet, as water bills, on top of already sky-high property tax rates, make city living an expensive proposition. Even if the Philadelphia model proves not to be the answer, it should be by now clear that what we’re doing is simply not working and must be reformed.

In the meantime, the General Assembly needs to support Del. Mary Washington’s efforts to prohibit tax sales of homes over unpaid water bills. Thousands of city residents should not have to risk their homes over their inability to afford a basic necessity of life. Other cities have found ways to collect water bills without the threat of tax sales. Baltimore can too.

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