Anti privatization charter amendment would protect Baltimore's water system, residents

The City Charter lays the foundation for how Baltimore operates. After Mayor Catherine Pugh set up a team to review and update this document, which was last updated more than 20 years ago, the City Council has been using the review as an opportunity to bring positive change to our city.

Councilman Dorsey passed legislation to give the Office of the Inspector General independence. Councilman Burnett passed legislation to establish public financing for Baltimore elections. And on Monday, Council President Jack Young passed legislation that would make the water supply and sewer systems “inalienable” assets of the city.

The proposed charter amendment, once signed by the mayor and ratified by the voters in November, would make it so that Baltimore could not sell, lease or grant a franchise for the city’s water and sewer systems. Mayor Pugh originally proposed this charter amendment at the end of June, but she withdrew it alongside the rest of her proposed amendments. Fortunately, Council President Young took it upon himself to ensure its passage.

Shutting the door on the water privatization industry in Baltimore would be a huge win for the city. Water privatization abandons democracy and props up corporate interests while leaving customers hanging out to dry. Poor communities bear the brunt of the burden of the higher rates and unreliable service that come with corporate control of water.

At a time when Baltimore is facing an intensifying water affordability crisis, privatizing the system would be especially ill-conceived. A survey of the 500 largest water systems, taken by Food & Water Watch, found that private water companies charge households an average of 59 percent more than local governments charge.

We’re no strangers to water privatization schemes in Baltimore. The threat has loomed over our city for at least 25 years. As far back as 1997, then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke said he had met privately with at least three different companies over the preceding four years. More recently, in 2014, a proposal from Veolia was stopped in its tracks. And Mayor Pugh periodically has met with American Water as well as Suez since taking office in December 2016 (she even highlighted and thanked Suez at her Light City Mayoral Roundtable in April).

Only two municipalities have leased their water assets to Suez and its Wall Street partner, KKR: Bayonne, N.J., and Middletown, Pa. After Bayonne leased its system, rates went up 28 percent in the first four years, despite a promised four-year rate freeze. In the first year of the lease, the number of homes sent to tax sale for their water bills tripled. Middletown has had its own set of problems: The borough is in court right now trying to stop the company from adding a surcharge onto water and sewer bills, and last month, the entire borough was under a two-day, boil-water order because of problems with the Suez-run water supply.

Putting a private company in control of water service means relinquishing water access as the system’s top priority. Corporations must prioritize securing shareholder profit. Our city cannot afford to entertain this idea.

There’s certainly a lot of work to be done to make our water system work for everyone, but our city officials have the ability and the responsibility to make that happen on their own. The struggles our water system faces, from incorrect bills to massive water main breaks, must be addressed with only one goal in mind: making sure that everyone in our city has access to safe, affordable water service.

If the passed charter amendment is signed by Mayor Pugh and approved by voters, Baltimore would become the first major city in the country to ban the most extreme forms of water privatization. Baltimore should take this opportunity to set an example for other cities. Mayor Pugh must sign the resolution by the Aug. 13 deadline for proposed charter amendments to be sent to the Board of Elections to appear on the November ballot.

I urge her to stay true to her original proposal, sign this critical legislation that she brought to us, and lead Baltimore toward preserving our water system as an inalienable asset this November.

Rianna Eckel is Maryland Organizer of Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action; her email is reckel@fwwatch.org.

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