Baltimore's water bill woes persist

One year ago this month, the Department of Public Works (DPW) implemented the BaltiMeter Billing program. Let’s look back on what has happened since. The new monthly billing system made big promises to “ensure customers receive efficient and reliable billing services.” Turns out, the new system has fallen short on delivering any of these promises. Many of the problems endemic within DPW for decades have not been solved and have, in fact, been exacerbated instead.

As soon as the new water billing system came into effect, families saw serious glitches. They received bills for tens of thousands of dollars, some as high as $81,000, when they really only owed a couple hundred. Some customers have yet to even receive a bill at all under the new system. Others say they have paid their bills but were not credited for the payments, and still others have had to wait lengthy periods of time for their complaints to be addressed. All of this comes saddled with confusion about who to talk to and how to file concerns, due to the removal of informal conference hearings.

This week, we learned that the city has to shell out $34,000 to cover costs wrongly incurred by the Can Co. after it was overcharged $150,000 in one 2016 water bill and the property at 2400 Boston St. was erroneously put up for tax sale lien. You may also remember the incorrect tax sale lien of the beloved Orioles and Ravens stadiums, put up for an alleged outstanding payment of $70,000 in bills. Again: This was later determined to be a massive mistake by DPW as properties owned by the Maryland Stadium Authority are exempt from tax sale.

At the same time more than 1,000 homes and churches alongside the stadiums were also put up for tax sale lien, but they were not spared. Even those disputing their bills faced the threat of losing their homes due to unaffordable water bills while the lucrative stadiums remained exempt.

However, Baltimoreans are resourceful and went to great lengths to save their homes. One Baltimore woman made headlines when her neighbor gave her over $1,300 to pay off her overdue water bill. A relative of Harriet Tubman crowdfunded to pay off his water bill and save his historic family home. All of these were valiant efforts that should never have had to happen.

On July 1, the second of three planned rate hikes — raising water prices 33 percent in three years — went into effect (the final hike is set for next summer). This latest increase raised bills an average of 9.5 percent for families across the city and made water bills increasingly unaffordable. According to advocacy group Food & Water Watch, with the July 1 bump, water bills officially have quadrupled since 2000. With the lack of substantial assistance from DPW in terms of affordability programs, this makes it even harder for families to pay.

These issues in just one year when it comes to people’s access to water, one of the most basic human necessities, are unacceptable. The frustration, confusion and trauma seen in Baltimore as a result of water bills is simply unreasonable.

There are clear solutions that put our communities first, we just need to grow the political will to pass them. Last legislative session, I sponsored a bill to end the practice of selling people’s homes when they cannot afford their water bills. The bill was weakened and ultimately didn’t pass in the Senate, primarily due to opposition from the Maryland Association of Counties and the city.

While removing water bills from tax sales is an important piece of the puzzle when ensuring community stability, we also need to address the root of the problem: the lack of affordability programs to counter the ever-climbing water rates.

Simply put, water rates have to increase. We have to fix the water infrastructure in Baltimore City to ensure the quality and safety of the water. We have one of the oldest water and sewer systems in the country, so an upgrade is inevitable.

However, just because the rates continue to rise, it does not mean we need to price-out families from being able to afford their water bills. Nobody should ever have to choose between providing food for their family or paying for an essential like an electric or water bill. The one-time $197 credit for those behind on their bill and under a certain income limit simply does not cut it for many low-income families in our city. We need a more comprehensive solution.

Philadelphia just implemented a percentage-of income water billing program that caps low-income families’ bills at a level they can afford. Baltimore should seek progressive solutions like this and ensure that every family can keep their water on — and stay in their home. I promise to continue fighting for solutions in Annapolis and urge our City Council to do the same.

Mary Washington, a Democrat, represents Baltimore City in the Maryland House of Delegates. Her email is mary.washington@house.state.md.us.

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